In a huge victory for the labor movement in the United States, over 10,000 UAW John Deere workers ended a five week strike with 61% of workers voting to approve a new six year contract that would give employees an immediate 10% raise. Workers will also receive an $8,500 signing bonus and a 20% raise over the lifetime of the contract. The strike, made up of production and warehouse workers across 14 facilities in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, was the largest in the private sector since 2019 and the first strike by Deere workers since 1986.
The workers began their strike after voting down two tentative agreements with John Deere. The first agreement put forth by Deere offered a mere five percent raise, not nearly enough to keep up with the cost of inflation. Additionally, the proposed contract axed pension plans for new hires.
Amidst threats by Deere to break the strike by hiring scabs and moving operations overseas, the workers refused to accept this attack on their hard fought gains without a fight, with 90% voting no on the first tentative agreement, and some leaders putting everything on the line. The Deere workers were fighting for economic stability, against the expansion of their two-tier system, and to retire with dignity.
The militant, intergenerational struggle waged by Deere workers took place amongst a flurry of other strikes and labor actions throughout the month of October, during which tens of thousands of workers participated in what became known as “Striketober”. As UAW International President Ray Curry said, “UAW John Deere members did not just unite themselves. They seemed to unite the nation in a struggle for fairness in the workplace.”
The victory of these workers comes after decades of being beaten down by their Fortune 500 employer. For all workers in the United States, the onslaught of anti-worker, neoliberal economic policy starting in the 1970s cut down the power of the labor movement and pushed an agenda of deindustrialization. Like many other manufacturing employers, John Deere began to heavily outsource its production around the world with trade deals that allowed capitalists to expand aggressively overseas into cheaper labor markets. These two pressures worked side by side to force concessions from the unionized workers in every new union contract, undercutting their hard won victories from decades past. U.S. John Deere workers are now being pitted by their bosses against workers overseas in addition to newer generations of workers in the two-tier system, but the workers won’t allow it.
For Deere workers, one of their biggest concessions felt to this day was the introduction of a two-tier pension system in 1997 under threat of plant closures across the midwest. The new two-tier system left new hires worse off by cutting their pay, health insurance, and pensions. Even while undercutting their employees and reaping massive profits in the United States and overseas, the company received massive government assistance, receiving nearly $6 billion in federal loans, guarantees, and bailouts since 2000.
The boiling point for this fight came after the pressures of the pandemic on workers and the clear corporate greed by Deere pushed the workers to say they would not take it anymore. The COVID-19 pandemic put an immense strain on working people everywhere. After losing cost-of-living raises in their 2015 contract, Deere workers were already getting squeezed between low wages and increasing cost of living and then faced a pandemic that came with an eviction crisis and growing inflation.
Over the course of the pandemic, like many of the largest corporations in the United States John Deere reported record profits in 2021. The company is reporting expected net income of $5.7 to $5.9 billion for 2021, a new high for the equipment manufacturing giant. With these enormous profits during the pandemic, CEO John C. May took in a 160% raise.
Despite this massive windfall for the corporation, they continued to push even greater concessions from Deere workers initially in contract negotiations. Workers ultimately overcame John Deere’s corporate greed by securing significant raises and maintaining their health insurance, ensuring they wouldn’t continue to be crushed by inflation as their wages declined.
This hard fought contract victory goes beyond the 10,000 John Deere workers and is a critical victory for the working class. Their struggle against the introduction of a third tier to the two-tier system they had in place is truly remarkable. The introduction of the two-tier system at John Deere incentivizes workers to sacrifice their class solidarity with future generations of workers to preserve their own position. By successfully fighting back against this concession, John Deere workers are fighting to maintain a decent quality of life and a dignified retirement for previous generations of workers, the current workforce and future workers.
Amid the wave of workers fighting back across the country and the world, John Deere workers are beginning to feel their strength after bringing their employer to its knees. These workers will continue to fight for their future and inspire other workers to take their future into their own hands too.
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