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Thousands of John Deere workers strike over contract

  • >> Noam Scheiber, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-10-14 14:18:34 BdST

A youth is evacuated from a flooded Houston neighbourhood on a John Deere backhoe being driven by a volunteer, Aug 28, 2017. Representational image. Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times

Some 10,000 unionised workers at the agriculture equipment maker Deere & Co. went on strike early Thursday after overwhelmingly rejecting a contract proposal worked out with the company by negotiators for the United Automobile Workers union.

The strike deadline was announced on Sunday after the union said its members had voted down the tentative agreement reached on Oct 1. Union negotiators had characterised the proposal as providing “significant economic gains” and “the highest quality health care benefits in the industry.”

But workers, who are spread out across roughly one dozen facilities primarily in Iowa and Illinois, criticised the deal for insufficiently increasing wages, for denying a traditional pension to new employees and for failing to substantially improve an incentive program that they consider overly stingy.

“We’ve never had the deck stacked in our advantage the way it is now,” said Chris Laursen, a worker at a John Deere plant in Ottumwa, Iowa, who was president of his local there until recently.

Laursen cited the profitability of Deere & Co — which is on pace to set a record of nearly $6 billion this fiscal year — as well as relatively high agricultural commodity prices and supply-chain bottlenecks resulting from the pandemic as sources of leverage for workers.

“The company is reaping such rewards, but we’re fighting over crumbs here,” he said.

The strike comes at a time when many employers are grappling with worker shortages and workers across the country appear more willing to undertake strikes and other labor actions.

Last week more than 1,000 workers at Kellogg, the cereal-maker, went on strike, and Mondelez International, the maker of Oreos, experienced a work stoppage this summer. Workers have waged high profile union campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks.

Under the tentative deal, wages would have increased 5% or 6% this year, depending on a worker’s pay grade, and then an additional 3% each in 2023 and 2025.

Traditional pension benefits would have increased but remained substantially lower for workers hired after 1997 than before, and many workers were disappointed to see them cut for new hires, Laursen said.

Looming over the negotiation is a suspicion among rank and file workers toward the international union resulting from a series of scandals in recent years involving corruption within the union and illegal payoffs from executives at the company then known as Fiat Chrysler to union officials.

The scandals led to more than 15 convictions, including those of two recent UAW presidents.

© 2021 The New York Times Company