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Deere strikers vote down contract, fight continues

By Karen Ray
and Val Johnson
November 15, 2021

DENVER — Production and maintenance workers at John Deere’s 12 plants in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas voted 55% to 45% Nov. 2 to reject the agricultural implements bosses’ latest contract offer.  

While a majority of United Auto Workers members at some plants voted in favor, at the two biggest plants significant majorities voted no —  members of Local 838 in Waterloo and Local 94 in Dubuque, Iowa. In Waterloo 71% reject the contract.  

Douglas Woolam told the Des Moines Register  that he voted against the contract because of the two-tier pay scale that means the majority of the workers continue to get far lower pay. Woolam has worked at the John Deere Seeding Group in Moline, Illinois, for 23 years.  

Woolam said family members, including his grandfather, father and aunt, have worked for Deere for 75 years. Workers there have been under attack for years by Deere bosses, who forced through the divisive two-tier wage setup in 1997. And, Woolam said, his father retired earning a higher wage than he does now.  

“I’m not thinking about me,” he told the paper. “I’m thinking about people behind me.”  

The offer was a significant improvement over the one workers rejected by 90% before going on strike. It included offers of a 10% wage increase this year, two 5% wage increases over the next six years, as well as lump payouts equivalent to 3% of a year’s pay in the other years, and an $8,500 signing bonus. It gave new hires company insurance.  

Workers would have gotten a cost-of-living agreement to help against inflation and continue to pay no premiums for health care.  

Irving Griffin, a forklift driver at the Moline plant, told the paper he thought they can get more out of the company by continuing the strike. “Now is the best time to strike and take a stand for what we’re really worth,” he told the Register.  

The “no” vote “turns up the pressure on Deere management,” the Wall Street Journal  reported Nov. 3, “before  customers start to defect to other equipment brands as orders and production get under way for next year’s models.”  

Bosses responded to the contract vote by threatening to “execute the next phase of our Customer Service Continuation Plan.” That means trying to run the plants with more scabs.  

Before the vote, we attended a picket line by 50 union supporters who came out to join the six United Auto Workers members on strike at the John Deere parts-distribution center here Oct. 29.  

Workers here told the Militant  Nov. 3 they voted for the agreement. “But it got voted down so I had to come out even if I voted in favor,” Jacob Holt said.  

“We are part of something bigger,” striker Curtavias Fenderson, who has worked here for 18 months, said, pointing to other strikes going on, like at Kellogg’s and elsewhere around the country. “It’s a domino effect. If these companies don’t want to pay the workers, then workers are going on strike.”

Striker Darius Fenderson said that “during the pandemic the company told us to work harder, we are ‘essential.’ The saying goes, ‘You work hard you will be compensated.’” But that isn’t what happened. “You see inflation and profits going up, but we don’t get anything. It’s our work that’s responsible for their record-breaking profits.”

Jacob Holt was hired by Deere four months before the strike. He grew up in Indiana where his family has farmed for generations. John Deere bosses are trying to divide the workers, who build farm equipment, from the farmers, saying the strike will make things harder on them. Holt said his grandfather, who is still farming, told him, “I understand why you had to go out on strike, that workers need safe working conditions and decent wages that they can live off of.”

The strikers were joined by fellow UAW Local 186 members who work at the Chrysler auto-parts warehouse down the road, and members of Service Employees International Union Local 105, which organizes 350 janitors at the Denver airport and support staff at Kaiser Permanente. These workers are in contract negotiations themselves, and on Sept. 30 the janitors staged a one-day strike at the airport.

Others joined the picket from area unions, including UPS drivers, who are members of the Teamsters who have stopped making deliveries and pickups at the distribution center.

At the start of the Oct. 29 picket there was a moment of silence for Richard Rich, a fellow union member who was hit and killed by a car two days earlier while crossing the street to join the Deere picket line in Milan, Illinois. Strikers had been calling authorities for days to fix the broken street light at the corner.

John Studer contributed to this article.