Earlier this month, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) locals across Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas approved a strike authorization vote by a 99 percent margin amid contract negotiations with the John Deere manufacturing company, as reported by Labor Notes. The current contract, which has been in place for six years, is set to expire at midnight of September 30.
A strike, which will likely start in the first half of October if John Deere and UAW are not able to come to an agreement, would have major implications for the manufacturing company. With harvest season around the corner, it would also impact the agriculture industry writ large. This year shows record high demand for durable goods, a shortage in labor, and a massive backlog in production, further complicating things for the leading agricultural equipment manufacturing company.
Negotiations are ongoing and it’s unclear whether the strike will happen, but workers are still preparing for a fight. Former UAW Local 74 president Chris Laursen said that John Deere workers “share one thing in common: Everybody knows that Deere owes us a better contract. Everybody knows that Deere is going to have to pony up if they want to create a viable workforce to create shareholder profit, which is their main interest.”
This potential strike would also be coming on the heels of record profits for John Deere. The company made more money in just the first nine months of this fiscal year than it did in the entirety of its record-breaking 2013 year.
While a week still remains before the contract expires, some workers in the bargaining unit have already taken action, picketing outside of the John Deere headquarters over issues like wages, higher co-pays, seniority provisions, and cuts to both short-term disability and health care.
The last time John Deere workers went on strike was in 1986–87, when more than twelve thousand workers walked off the job during contract negotiations over some of the same issues as today. That strike cost the company more than $100 million in their Quad Cities shops alone. After the five-month strike, the two sides came to an agreement that included a job security program that prevented more than 10 percent of UAW workers from being laid off at any one time.
A decade after that strike, the UAW gave a major concession allowing John Deere to implement a tiered workforce program where employees hired after their 1997 contract agreement made less money than workers already there. Now, more than three decades since the last strike, there is a renewed sense of militancy among John Deere workers.
The current members hope their efforts will not only secure immediate gains for themselves and their families but also lay the foundation for future good jobs. Former chairman of UAW 79 David Schmelzer told Jacobin, “We took this vote seriously. We ask ourselves, ‘What does this contract mean for me right now, me in ten years, and the worker coming in the door ten years after me?’”
Schmelzer went on to distill exactly what this struggle means to him and his coworkers after a particularly grueling year of work during the pandemic. “We are making these shareholders billions of dollars while we are fighting for peanuts,” he said. “Fighting just to hold on to our health insurance, the same health insurance we relied on when working six days a week for ten to twelve hours a day most weeks during the coronavirus pandemic.”