John Deere workers are on strike for the first time in 35 years

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Workers at John Deere plants across the US midwest walked off the job at midnight on Oct. 14 amid contract negotiations between the tractor company and the United Auto Workers.

The strike, which is the company’s first since 1986, involves more than 10,000 employees. The union workers rejected a proposed six-year contract with Deere on Oct. 10 that would have raised current employees’ wages and retirement payments, but ended the pension program for workers hired after Nov. 1. The new workers would have received matching contributions to a 401(k) retirement savings account instead.

“Our members at John Deere strike for the ability to earn a decent living, retire with dignity, and establish fair work rules,” said Chuck Browning, director of the UAW’s agricultural implement department, in an Oct. 14 statement. “We stay committed to bargaining until our members’ goals are achieved.”

The John Deere strike comes amid a wave of worker activism across the US manufacturing, healthcare, and entertainment sectors.

UAW workers want more from contract as Deere takes in record profits

This year is on track to be immensely profitable for John Deere. The company expects to earn $5.7 billion to $5.9 billion, up 63% from its previous record year.

The proposed contract that workers rejected would have given them immediate raises of 5% or 6%, as well as 3% pay bumps in 2023 and 2025.

Some workers told the Des Moines Register that the wage increases they would receive from the proposed contract seemed paltry in comparison to the latest pay raise for Deere CEO John May, who earned nearly  $16 million in 2020, a 160% increase from the previous year. May has been with Deere since 1997; he became CEO at the end of 2019 and added the title of board chair in May 2020.

“They’ve long forgot who really does the work,” Diana Swartz, an assembly worker whose hourly pay would rise just $0.74 under the proposed Deere contract, told the newspaper.

Brad Morris, Deere’s vice president of labor relations, said in a statement that the company was determined to reach an agreement with UAW that would “put every employee in a better economic position.”

“Striketober” has brought a wave of worker activism

John Deere employees were deemed essential during the covid-19 pandemic and risked their health to show up to work. At the same time, the company has been struggling to hire enough workers to meet demand this year.

“This is a moment where employees have opportunities to ask for more wages, to demand more,” said Paul Frymer, a politics professor at Princeton University specializing in labor issues. The US had a record 10.9 million job openings in September. Big employers including Amazon and McDonald’s recently raised wages in the hopes of filling vacant jobs.

Frymer said that in addition to labor shortages, the covid-19 pandemic has led to “increased solidarity” among workers, while demonstrating “the importance of unions.”

“So many people have suffered through some really tough months, almost two years now, and that no doubt leads to resentment toward management and the way management has treated a lot of workers,” Frymer said.

The term #Striketober has been circulating on social media this month, referring to worker activism taking place across the country in addition to the John Deere strike.

On Oct. 11, 24,000 employees of the giant healthcare network Kaiser Permanente voted to authorize a strike over pay and working conditions, while 60,000 film and television production workers are planning to strike on Oct. 18 if demands are not met for their new contract. Workers at cereal maker Kellogg have been on strike for over a week, and in Seattle, members of the Northwest Carpenters Union recently approved a contract after a three-week strike.

While organized labor has been declining steadily since the 1980s, strikes by public teachers and service workers have seen some success in recent years. But Amazon employees’ recent push to unionize showed the limits of worker power, too: Warehouse workers in Alabama rejected unionization efforts in April, signaling a setback for the labor movement.

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