By Geoff Mirelowitz
In a November 17 vote, United Auto Workers (UAW) members at the major agricultural implements company John Deere approved a new contract and ended their month-long strike. The agreement, which covers some 10,000 workers in the U.S., was approved by a vote of 61% to 39%. The union ranks had rejected two previous contract offers.
Members of UAW Local 838 in Waterloo, Iowa, voted against the new agreement by a margin of 56% to 44%.
Following the second contract rejection, Deere management insisted it would not improve its offer. But the company, which expects to earn some $6 billion this fiscal year, clearly wanted to resume production so it offered an improvement in its Continuous Improvement Pay Program. “Under the agreement, workers can earn 20 percent beyond their base pay when they hit productivity targets, rather than 15 percent,” reported the New York Times, per a union spokesperson.
This change was on top of more significant improvements won by the ranks as the result of their overwhelming rejection of the first Deere contract offer brought to them by top UAW officials in October. Strike action resulted in an immediate 10% wage increase, as well as a 5% percent raise in 2023 and again in 2025, along with yearly lump-sum payments equal to 3% of wages for the remainder of the contract.
The new contract also retains the traditional pension plan for new employees. This is an important victory. Top UAW officials had agreed to Deere’s earlier demand that new employees not be covered. Also included in the new agreement is a post-retirement health care fund.
Nevertheless, the “No” vote of almost 40% of UAW members on the third offer signifies that a substantial number of workers felt it could have been possible to win even more from the wealthy corporation. The provision for additional wages based on productivity is itself controversial among workers. All job categories do not see equal benefits from the Deere plan. Other such industrial incentive plans often encourage a faster work pace that places workers at greater risk of injury.
Matt Pickrell, a longtime worker at a John Deere plant in Ottumwa, Iowa, told the New York Times that if an assembly line is slowed down by supply chain disruptions—which are increasingly common today throughout the world—performance pay is impossible to achieve. He explained he can exercise his seniority to move to a different assignment when it becomes clear that a new company performance target can’t be met, but workers with less seniority are stuck. “It’s creating another tier,” Mr. Pickrell told the Times, referring to “tiered” systems in which workers with more seniority receive higher pay and benefits than those with less.
According to a report in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, members of UAW Local 838 in Waterloo, Iowa, who voted against the new contract said the changes focused largely on the Continuous Improvement Pay Program and insisted the changes do not address their concerns. The new contract does not include full health care benefits in retirement, which was a deal breaker for many workers, the Courier reported.
The 61% vote in favor of the new contract, however, indicates a majority of union members felt they had won enough to return to work. The entire experience was a statement to Deere and other employers that many workers recognize they have more leverage today than in the past to enforce their demands. How to use that leverage most effectively is an issue many workers are beginning to consider and act on.
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