Thousands of John Deere workers walked off the job early Thursday after members of the United Auto Workers union rejected the tractor maker’s contract offer, launching the latest strike by an emboldened labor movement.
“The cards are in our favor right now … it’s never been lined up this well for us,” said Chris Laursen, a longtime worker at the John Deere plant in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Laursen pointed to the company’s record profits, as well as the huge pay raise awarded chief executive John May. “The labor shortage is in our favor too,” he said. “Deere can’t hire enough people with the package they’re offering right now.”
John Deere spokeswoman Jen Hartmann said the company is committed to reaching a favorable outcome, one that would “put every employee in a better economic position and continue to make them the highest-paid employees in the agriculture and construction industries.”
The strike includes more than 10,000 workers at 14 Deere plants, including seven in Iowa, four in Illinois and one each in Kansas, Colorado and Georgia. The company has activated a continuity plan that will bring in nonunion employees to keep operations running. “Our immediate concern is meeting the needs of our customers, who work in time-sensitive and critical industries such as agriculture and construction,” Hartmann said.
The strikes are hitting a wide variety of industries, encompassing skilled assembly-line workers, nurses, pharmacists and Hollywood stagehands. Thousands have gone on strike at food plants operated by Kellogg’s, Nabisco and Frito-Lay over work hours, pay and benefits. On Monday more than 24,000 Kaiser Permanente workers authorized a strike over a new two-tiered pay and benefits system opposed by the union. And Hollywood production workers announced plans to strike Monday in pursuit of improved pay and working conditions.
All of them are asking for a larger share of pandemic-era profits, as many of these companies have seen their fortunes surge over the past year. John Deere, for example, saw its earnings reach a record $1.79 billion in the second quarter and operating profits hit $489 million.
The Moline, Ill.-based company, whose green- and yellow-branded tractors are staples across rural America, has seen particular success among its lawn mowers and other home products. It also expects significant growth in its international divisions. But labor challenges at John Deere and especially among its suppliers are limiting the company’s ability to meet customer demand, a company executive said in a recent call with investors.
John Deere contends that its assembly-line workers already have some of the best wages and benefits in their respective industries. An employee typically makes about $60,000 per year, according to wage figures published by the company. The now-rejected contract offer would have increased it to nearly $72,000.
Laursen, the Iowa union official, said the strike is really about winning back benefits that workers lost long ago. The company operates under a two-tiered system with smaller pensions than workers enjoyed in the ’90s, he said.
“Fast-forward 19 years, after many concessionary contracts, here we are with a membership that’s better-informed,” Laursen said in an interview Thursday.
Toby Munley, an electrician at the Ottumwa plant, is in his 18th year with the company and worries whether he will be taken care of in retirement.
He and his colleagues have been comparing their benefits to those of previous generations and believe they are coming up short. He notes that his father-in-law received health-care benefits in retirement that he won’t, as did his grandmother, who was married to a John Deere worker.
“We need a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The autoworkers union is receiving some help from the Teamsters union of truck drivers, who Laursen said are helping hold the company’s picket line. Some other trucks working for a nonunionized contractor are crossing the picket line to deal with some concrete work, he said.
“A semi just tried to turn into the entrance to load up some balers, and everybody shouted, ‘NOOOOO!’ ” Laursen said, taking a reporter’s call from the Iowa picket line. “He looked at us like, ‘What do I do?’ and then kept going.”
The walkout had little immediate impact on Deere & Co. stock, which closed Thursday just above $329 a share.