More than 10,000 workers at the tractor and agricultural giant John Deere walked off the job on Wednesday night, beginning the largest private sector strike in the United States since 2019.
The strike was authorized after John Deere workers at a dozen facilities in Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas voted by 90 percent to reject a contract negotiated for months between the United Automobile Workers union and the company.
Striking workers rejected the deal for failing to increase wages and denying new employees a pension plan, despite record profits for the company and a tight labor market that has afforded workers around the country leverage to demand more from their employers.
"This is about wages," a John Deere union member in Davenport, Iowa, told Motherboard. "With what other people are paying, it doesn’t matter if this is McDonald's or Wendy's. We’ve been stagnant compared to everyone else."
“Our members at John Deere strike for the ability to earn a decent living, retire with dignity and establish fair work rules,” Chuck Browning, Vice President and director of the UAW’s Agricultural Implement Department, said in a statement. “We stay committed to bargaining until our members’ goals are achieved.”
In 2015, John Deere workers made major concessions to the company in their contract, but this year appears to be different. There's a tight labor market—brought on by the pandemic—which has given workers more leverage to demand and expect more from their employers. Workers rejected a contract deal that would give them a five to six percent raise to most workers and push all new hires out of the company's pension plan.
John Deere, a Fortune 500 company, meanwhile, is about to clock its most profitable year ever. In 2021, Deere & Company is set to profit nearly $6 billion due to increased demand for agricultural parts, beating its past record by 63 percent. In 2020, CEO John May received $15.6 million in compensation, thanks for the company's stock performance.
"John Deere is committed to a favorable outcome for everyone involved," a statement on the company's website says. "John Deere is determined to reach an agreement with the UAW that would put every employee in a better economic position and continue to make them the highest paid employees in the agriculture and construction industries."
"John Deere and the agricultural implements industry has a militant history that dates back to the 19th century. It's older than the automobile," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at UC Santa Barbara. "There's a tradition of multi-generational labor militancy. It's really heartening to see this now."
The strike arrives as workers across the country feel emboldened to demand more. In early October, 1,000 workers at Kellogg's cereal factories went on strike to end a two-tier benefits system. Factory workers at Frito-Lay and Nabisco went on strike earlier this summer. On Monday, 60,000 Hollywood film crew members could go on strike unless a deal is made with their union to improve wages, meal breaks, and schedules.
Another issue for John Deere workers has been the company's piece rate pay system that awards bonuses to groups of workers who hit their rates. Parts shortages in the supply chain, thanks to COVID, have made it impossible at times for production workers to hit their rates, workers say, and some say they have been penalized for not doing so.
"Sometimes we're penalized and certainly it hurts people's paychecks and John Deere’s earnings," the union member in Davenport told Motherboard.
On local UAW Facebook pages, John Deere workers have received instructions on how the picket line will work. "This begins day 1 of the strike rotation. Please show up for your duty," one page for John Deere workers in Des Moines said on Thursday morning.
The decision of John Deere union members to reject the contract negotiated by their unions arrives as UAW members prepare to vote on whether they should be able to elect the union's top officers following a corruption scandal that landed two former UAW presidents in prison for spending union funds on vacations and golf.
Striking John Deere workers will be paid $275 a week by the union for the duration of the strike, which could last months. The last John Deere strike was in 1986.