So when Deere and the United Auto Workers announced the terms of a new six-year labor contract on Oct. 1, Flemming was hoping for a generous reward. Instead, the 5 to 6 percent raise and other benefits on offer felt like a “joke,” she said — and triggered the first labor strike against Deere since 1986.
About 10,000 Deere workers in multiple states have rejected two contract offers in recent weeks, and are set to vote on a third Wednesday.
“We didn’t give up on them. We didn’t quit,” Flemming said from the picket line outside her factory, huddling around a fire barrel with a dozen colleagues as light snow swirled overhead. “We feel like they should honor that. ... We’re asking you to look at the little people, the little people that make you look good.”
The historic strikes at Deere, best known for its John Deere branded-machinery, are a stark example of the pandemic’s impact on the economy. The gyrations that coronavirus caused in global commerce have upended not only supply and demand but workers’ attitudes, causing many to question for the first time in decades what they’re willing to tolerate.
That is unsettling the way labor relations have existed in the United States since the Reagan administration, when corporations began chiseling away pay and benefits.
Worker rebellions and strikes are hitting a variety of industries, including low-wage fast-food jobs and skilled manufacturing, as well as health care and food processing. In some cases, workers have won concessions: striking Nabisco and Frito-Lay employees returned to work in recent weeks after negotiating better terms for pay and working hours.
The phenomenon is also visible in what some call the Great Resignation, as record numbers of Americans quit their jobs in search of better opportunities, and in office workers’ push for greater remote-work flexibility, said Paul Iversen, a labor educator at the University of Iowa Labor Center.
“There is just a new feeling of worker militancy,” he said. Inspired by the pandemic to reevaluate their lives, many people are examining their relationships with their employers and deciding “we’re not going to go back to the old normal.”
For some low-wage workers sent home during lockdowns, generous pandemic-related unemployment benefits gave them the breathing room they’ve never had to scrutinize their working conditions and consider alternatives, Iversen said. Other workers who had to remain on the job in risky conditions would now like recognition for their sacrifice, he added.
High quit rates, coupled with soaring demand for goods, have created a labor shortage in many parts of the country, which is strengthening workers’ bargaining power.
“Right now we have a lot more leverage than we’ve ever had previously,” said Tim, a Deere worker at another picket site who, like some others, would give only his first name because he feared Deere retaliation for speaking out. “Even if they were to try to hire scabs, they wouldn’t find that many.”
Tim and others said Deere’s strong profits this year are also motivating their push for better pay. Starting workers at the combine plant earn just under $20 an hour, with possible extra bonuses if production targets are met. Workers with higher skills or more seniority earn more.
Mandatory overtime has also rankled some employees. “We don’t feel like humans right now, you know, we feel more like robots,” Tim said as passing cars honked support and volunteers dropped off food.
The first tentative agreement between Deere and UAW negotiators offered immediate raises of 5 to 6 percent, depending on the job, and an additional 3 percent in 2023 and 2025. It also proposed eliminating pensions for new hires. The second agreement offered an immediate 10 percent raise and an $8,500 ratification bonus, plus 5 percent raises in 2023 and 2025.
In a statement, the UAW said the third agreement included “modest modifications.” It didn’t provide further details, saying only that it would “support the outcome as determined by our members.”
Deere, headquartered in Moline, touted the second agreement in a Nov. 8 statement.
“Our employees represented by the UAW are important to John Deere’s future,” the company said. The offer would ensure “they would share in our current and future success through wages and benefits that are not only the best in our industries — they are groundbreaking.”
Deere spokeswoman Jennifer Hartmann declined to comment further Tuesday.
Community members have shown strong support for the workers, keeping them warm with hot drinks and firewood. A local supermarket has offered $50 worth of free groceries to anyone with a union card.
Flemming and her colleagues even got a show of support from a group of unionized tank manufacturers from Ohio, who drove all the way to the Quad Cities last week to visit the picketers.
“It is very clear that it’s the workers’ right to advocate for themselves when the company they are part of has record profits, and we recognize that both those workers and the company itself are extremely important parts of our local economy,” Moline’s mayor, Sangeetha Rayapati, said in an interview.
Deere is one of the largest employers in the Quad Cities, a clutch of Illinois and Iowa locales, including East Moline, that straddle both sides of the Mississippi River. In the 1800s, the region grew into an agricultural and industrial powerhouse, drawing John Deere, a blacksmith from Vermont, to start manufacturing plows in the area in 1848.
The region fell on hard times in the late 1970s as some large manufacturers closed up shop. Deere remained, providing jobs that local residents coveted well into the 1990s, workers say.
Chad, a worker picketing alongside Flemming, said his parents, uncles and grandparents all retired from Deere. Many workers of their era would retire after 30 years with the company, sometimes in their 50s, with Deere continuing to provide their health care, Chad said.
In the late 1990s, Deere started ratcheting back its more generous benefits, including post-retirement health insurance, a move that brought Deere in line with many other employers nationwide but rankled local residents who’d come to expect more.
“I’ll have to work till I’m 65 just to get Medicare,” said Chad, who joined the company in 2004.
In the old days, Deere “had a list” of applicants waiting to accept jobs, Flemming said. “You could hardly get in here. They paid well ... they treated their workers awesome.”
Harry Katz, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations, said there are limits to workers’ power. Companies “have the ability to outsource and move production domestically to nonunion sources of supply, or move production abroad, and that has fundamentally enhanced their bargaining power,” he said in an interview.
Still, he added, striking workers are showing “a large amount of solidarity, and management is making large profits. ... They have a lot more to lose than they did six months ago when the economy was softer.”
Kristin Jordan, a 19-year veteran of the combine factory, agreed that the first contract offer felt like a “slap in the face” after the sacrifices workers made during the pandemic, including working overtime to make up for employees who stayed home because of health concerns.
“It was long, it was grueling. Sometimes it was seven days a week. They can’t make you work Sunday but some departments say, ‘Hey, we need you, and you go in,’ ” she said.
But Jordan said she thought the second offer was improved enough that she voted yes. She especially liked that Deere had restored periodic cost-of-living raises to keep up with inflation, something the company had stripped out of the previous six-year contract.
Still, when union members as a group turned down the offer, “I went right back on the picket line,” Jordan said.
Katz, the Cornell professor, said there are some parallels between today’s labor tumult and the period after World War II, when a wave of strikes hit the market, by workers who had made big sacrifices in the military and in defense factories.
Nearing the end of his six-hour strike shift outside a Deere warehouse, a worker named Blake said he’d recently watched a YouTube video comparing the two periods.
“Everybody stopped kind of doing what they were doing to do stuff for the war. Well, the same thing happened with the pandemic,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we stood up for you. Now it’s your turn to step up for us.’ "