By Geoff Mirelowitz
Seattle, October 15, 2021—United Auto Workers (UAW) members at John Deere, one of the giants of the agricultural machinery industry worldwide, struck the company on Thursday, October 14, for the first time in more than three decades. Over 10,000 workers are on strike at 14 plants in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas. The Waterloo Courier reported the mood on the picket lines at entrances to the Deere plants was “downright jovial.”
“Picketers were assigned to entrances in groups of six for four-hour shifts,” the Courier said in a further testimony to the fighting spirit of these workers, “but often Thursday there were far more at the entrances—many of them workers but also family members.”
That spirit is a result of the union ranks asserting their own right to control the contract negotiations with Deere. On Sunday, October 10, 90 percent of the union membership voted on a tentative contract negotiated by the UAW leadership with Deere. Ninety percent of those voting rejected the proposal. A “hard deadline” of midnight October 14 was set for strike action.
Deere is in the midst of its most profitable year ever, on a pace towards $6 billion for fiscal year 2021. The previous record high was $3.5 billion in 2013. UAW negotiators told the membership Deere’s contract proposal provided “significant economic gains” and “the highest quality health care benefits in the industry,” according to the New York Times. Clearly workers did not agree.
The ranks opposed 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,” reported the Times.
“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 UAW Local 74 there until recently.
Supply chain bottlenecks are source of leverage
Laursen pointed to Deere’s profitability today, as well as relatively high agricultural commodity prices and supply-chain bottlenecks resulting from the pandemic, as sources of leverage for workers, in talking to the Times.
“The company is reaping such rewards, but we’re fighting over crumbs here,” he said.
The same spirit clearly animated thousands of other workers. On the website of the Jacobin magazine, Jonah Furman reported UAW members “described rowdy scenes from at least some of the nine [union] local meetings. In Waterloo, Iowa, Local 838, several members wrote ‘F*** No’ on their T-shirts (they used the uncensored version). At the microphone, one member said that the only thing the agreement was good for was ‘wiping my a**.’”
In Ottumwa, Iowa, Furman said, “many members simply filed in, voted no, and left,” referring to the union meetings. He also cited Chris Laursen saying, “They knew they were voting no, they didn’t want to sit there and listen to the bulls***,”referring to arguments by union officials urging UAW members to vote yes.
“In the Quad Cities,” Furman added, “the four-city region of southeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois that’s home to Deere headquarters and several Deere plants, local TV news spoke to workers who described the [union] meeting as ‘chaos.’
“By late morning [October 10], it was clear to many members the contract was going down. Even so, the 90 percent figure far exceeded most expectations,” wrote Furman.
The Deere strike is the largest in the U.S. private sector since the nationwide UAW walkout at General Motors in 2019.
Distrust in UAW officialdom
Distrust and a lack of confidence in the UAW leadership has been growing for some time. The Des Moines Register reported that workers booed a representative from the UAW headquarters at a union meeting there. “Members yelled at him about a 2018 vote, when union delegates approved a 31 percent pay hike for UAW leaders,” the paper reported.
That contrasts sharply with the deal endorsed by the same union officialdom for Deere workers. “Under the tentative deal,” reported the Times, “wages would have increased 5 or 6 percent this year, depending on a worker’s pay grade, and then an additional 3 percent each in 2023 and 2025.” The paper said traditional pension benefits would have increased but only for those hired at least 24 years ago. They would have remained substantially lower for workers hired after 1997. Many workers were disappointed to see benefits cut for new hires, according to Laursen.
Adding to the ranks’ distrust of the officialdom are a series of scandals that have resulted in prison terms on charges of corruption for 15 union officials, including two recent UAW presidents. Union members are preparing to vote later this month in a referendum on whether to establish direct election of the union’s top officers.
Discontent within the UAW ranks was evident during a strike at Volvo Trucks in Virginia this summer. There union officials urged workers to accept a proposed contract despite huge increases in health care costs and continuation of a two-tiered wage structure that pays workers with less seniority less than others for the same work.
According to the website Labor Notes, between April 17 and July 14, Virginia Volvo workers were asked to vote four times on the clearly inadequate contract. The first two votes rejected the proposal by 91 percent and then 90 percent. By the third vote the company and union officials had worn workers down to the point that “only” 60 percent voted no. Finally on July 14 the officials managed to eke out the result they were obviously determined to get, when the contract passed by 17 votes the fourth time around, on a tally of 1,147 to 1,130.
This is reminiscent of the experience members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) had at the Boeing Company eight years ago. In 2013, while reeling in enormous profits, Boeing demanded local IAM officials reopen the contract and accept a new proposal to end the fixed pension plan for any future employees. The ranks of the union turned that down by a two-to-one vote, despite Boeing’s threats to move production of its 777 jetliner out of its traditional factory base in Seattle to another location if the deal was not approved. Dissatisfied by the decision of the ranks, and determined to oblige Boeing’s wealthy owners, the IAM International then insisted on conducting a second vote. The contract proposal passed on January 3, 2014, by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin—a difference of only 600 votes.
The strike at Deere is clearly the result of a more combative mood in the ranks of the UAW there. Some workers are beginning to draw lessons from the mistaken course of the union officialdom that constantly seeks to avoid labor action and to accommodate the employers, no matter how large their profits nor how paltry (at best) their contract offers.
Fighting mood may be spreading
There are signs that mood may be spreading.
Last week, 1,400 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union went on strike against Kellogg, shutting plants where cereal brands such as Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran, Froot Loops, Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes are made.
On October 5, the day after their old contract expired, workers set up picket lines at plants in Battle Creek, Michigan; Memphis, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, .
Union members seem determined to fight the bosses’ demands for a two-tier contract that would deepen divisions among workers, as well as cuts to cost-of-living-adjustments that offer some protection from inflation, limits to holiday pay, and reduced vacations.
The company plans to pay new hires up to $13-an-hour less, Rob Eafen, president of Local 252G in Memphis, told the media. “Do not deprive these people, of what is rightfully theirs what they’ve worked for,” Eafen said, according to the local affiliate of ABC TV. “It’s not getting any cheaper to live, so why should they accept lower wages and higher cost of benefits? We’re all try to feed our families. We’re all trying to do the right things for this company. It’s time for this company to do the right thing for us.”
In addition, thousands of Kaiser Permanente employees in Southern California voted to authorize a strike against the healthcare giant, according to an article in the October 11 issue of the Los Angeles Times. The workers are protesting what they describe as severe staffing shortages that put both medical staff and patients at risk in the middle of a pandemic.
The strike authorization comes amid strained contract negotiations. Union representatives said nearly 21,000 nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical therapists and others represented by United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP), voted overwhelmingly— 96%—to approve a strike.
The union contract expired Sept. 30. The two sides have yet to agree on a new one. A strike would affect Kaiser hospitals and facilities in more than a dozen Southern California cities.
The regional strike vote comes as negotiations are underway for a national contract between Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which represents UNAC/UHCP as well as 20 other unions covering a total of more than 50,000 workers across the country.
Finally, on October 13, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—which represents technicians, artisans and crafts people in the entertainment industry—announced it had set a strike deadline for early Monday morning, October 18, if they could not reach a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for 60,000 film and television workers. The union said that 98.6% of members had voted to authorize a strike if there is no new deal by then. The workers are seeking to improve their schedules, pay, and working conditions.
Geoff Mirelowitz, a retired railroad switchman, was a long-time member of the United Transportation Union (now SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers).
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions