Deere strikers: End divisive two-tier, raise all our wages

By Edwin Fruit
November 22, 2021

WATERLOO, Iowa — United Auto Workers members on strike at John Deere plants in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, and distribution centers in Denver and Atlanta, rejected the bosses’ second contract proposal Nov. 2.

While it contained a higher wage offer and some other concessions, the bosses made no movement on what workers consider a key issue — divisive two tiers in wages and benefits. The majority of workers felt they could win more by continuing the strike.

This Militant worker-correspondent went along with Mark Severs, a member of Teamsters Local 638 in Minneapolis, and met with Kirk Drape, one of the vice presidents of UAW Local 838 here. Teamsters Locals 638 and 471 sent refreshments to the picket lines that were much appreciated by strikers.

Drape told us he thought they should have accepted the new agreement. Local 838 members voted the contract down by 71%. He said close to one-third of the 3,200 Deere employees there had been working for less than five years and that they wanted higher hourly wages than had been offered.

Drape said he appreciated the Militant’s coverage of the strike, and put the issue with an article from Waterloo on the Local 838 Facebook page for union members to read.

While talking with strikers on the picket lines here, most said they had voted against the proposed deal, despite the enhancements offered by the company. Everyone knows Deere has been raking in profits. Deere executives project the company will take in $5.7-$5.9 billion this year — at least 62% more than in 2013, the previous high.

Striker Todd Salisbury said he owns around 40 acres in southern Iowa but needs this job to meet expenses. “There used to be family farms here but that is now largely a thing of the past,” he said. “Farmers are forced to sell their land and give up farming or pay rent to new owners on land that used to be theirs.”

Salisbury voted against the contract because he wants to see more money upfront, not dragged out over a six-year period, the length of the contract Deere proposed. He said he was also opposed to the lump-sum payments the company offered in three of the years instead of pay raises. “We get taxed on the lump sum and then at the end of the year you get taxed again on the income. I want to see that money put into wages.”

Back at the union hall we met with two strikers who were helping to prepare meals. Kortney Clark has worked seven months as a forklift driver in the warehouse. She said she voted no on the contract. “With all the money the company is making, a 20% raise is more realistic than the 10% they offered,” she said.

“We lost our cost-of-living adjustment in the last contract,” she added. “The 10% increase does not make up for the money we lost in the past six years without that COLA.” And, like all workers, they face steep inflation today, especially in things like food and gas.

Millisa Thurmond, who has worked in tractor assembly for six months, also voted against the contract. She said the way the bosses mess up their schedules is a real problem. “They tell you on Wednesday that you have to work on Saturday, and then turn around on Friday and say that there is no weekend work. You can’t plan anything that way,” she said. “And I agree that we need to get back that money that we lost when we didn’t have the COLA.”

In an effort to put more pressure on the strikers after the vote, Deere told the media that this was their “best, last, and final offer,” and planned no further negotiations. They threatened to ramp up production without the union workers.

Steve Frisque, president of UAW Local 722 at the GM parts distribution center in Hudson, Wisconsin, drove to Waterloo with Financial Secretary Jennifer Grabczyk to bring solidarity. He made available to the Militant a copy of the letter brought to the strikers:

“We want all of the membership of Local 838 and all the UAW members on strike against John Deere to know that your Brothers and Sisters from Local 722 in Hudson, Wi., are proud of all of you and will have your backs every step of the way! In solidarity!”

Getting the word out and building support and solidarity is critical in this fight! You can contact Local 838 at 2615 Washington St., Waterloo, IA 50702, Tel.: (319) 233-3049.

Gabby Prosser contributed to this article.