UAW worker: ‘John Deere strike has been years in the making’

An interview by ERNIE GOTTA

This interview with Josh Saunders, a committeeman in Zone 4, UAW Local 865 in Iowa, speaks to the conditions that led to 10,000 John Deere workers walking off the job and onto the picket line. Saunders explains how this nationwide strike has been “years in the making” as it fits into the current mood of worker unrest that is mounting in the United States in the wake of economic crisis and the pandemic.

Ernie Gotta: The last strike at John Deere was 35 years ago. I was watching news footage of that strike and was impressed by the militancy of the workers on the line. Can you talk about some conditions that led to the current strike, the attitude of workers today toward the company, and the legacy of the UAW at John Deere?

Josh Saunders: The short answer is that the continued erosion of wages and the lack of respect from management have led to this strike. Many people who were hired before 2012 will tell you that they used to enjoy coming to work or at least didn’t mind the work too much. Since then, we had a large layoff at Harvester Works and no one hired after 2010 ever came back because our weak recall rights expired for them. Everyone has a minimum of two years recall rights. If you have more than two years seniority, you get time for time recall rights.

Back to why people are on strike now, though: Our pay system is incentive based, called CIPP—Continuous Improvement Pay Plan. There is a floor pay, plus this complex mathematical equation involving engineered base data, standard data, etc. The company has continually manipulated the system over the years to extract more and more from the workforce for less and less money. Every 26 weeks, your departmental CIPP team must have improvements of 2% to maintain the same pay.

To someone who isn’t a John Deere worker and hasn’t heard of this before, it probably sounds like a terrible system. It becomes worse when the company argues most everything is a design change or a method change, not a direct labor or value added change. Meaning that the change does not count towards the 2% improvement needed just to maintain the current pay rate.

Departments with workers who are vigilant will take the time to check these changes and file grievances when things are wrong. Those departments generally perform very well and they make very good money. Other departments where workers do not challenge these things are the most exploited through this system, either because they do not understand the system or they have been beaten down by the system so much so that they have given up.

This also leads to great amounts of division throughout the factory. One worker might be making 120% of their wage rate while they look across the aisle to see another worker, who might not even be working as hard as them because they have a better job standard, making 200% of their wage rate.

The union lost a $6.4 million arbitration grievance and base adjustment over the CIPP system in September of 2021. The company moved a department from one building to another, called it new work, and reengineered the CIPP metrics. This caused the workers to lose tens of thousands of dollars a year through the CIPP system.

I could go into much greater detail here but I will leave that no contract language changed in the proposed agreement. Most workers find this unacceptable. We were offered a small raise of 5%, no change in CIPP administration language, and no pension for new hires. Any raise would be eaten back up by how the company uses the CIPP system. Add in that a new hire would only have a 401k for retirement, how would they contribute to their 401k when they make less and less money through the CIPP system? The answer is that they wouldn’t be able to. We refused by over 90% to reject the proposed contract for these and other reasons.

As far as respect in the workplace I will give one example. A worker begins their shift at 7 a.m. At 7:15 a.m they get a message that their father in law has been rushed to the hospital and tells their supervisor. The supervisor states that they have no one to replace them, and they will have to stay despite the family emergency. The worker finished their shift at 5 p.m. By the time they got to the hospital, their father in law had passed away. The supervisor then told the worker the wrong three days they could take for bereavement. The worker was given an unauthorized absence for one of the days. While I, as a committeeman, was able to resolve the unauthorized absence and bereavement time, the supervisor never apologized for this terrible act, is still employed, and was recently given a promotion.

EG: John Deere is a very profitable company, especially through the course of the pandemic. During this period of the COVID crisis, manufacturers are scrambling to hire workers and fill orders. Given the recent strike wave dubbed “Striketober,” are UAW members feeling confident in their ability to win this strike? How do you see the John Deere strike in the context of the overall strike wave?

JS: I think the strike at John Deere has been years in the making. It isn’t just the laughable raise while working through a pandemic or new hires not getting a pension in this proposed contract. It’s been the last decade of disrespect, year after year of less pay when we get our W2, and finally the working class has the upper hand at bargaining. In 2009, we had a concessionary contract, but it was widely accepted due to the market downturn at the time. In 2015, we had another concessionary contract, but it was very narrowly passed by 51% to 49%. Likely due to laid-off members being able to vote, not knowing if they would ever be back (they wouldn’t) and a $3500 ratification bonus dangling in front of their faces. Not said to blame them, but just a reality of their situation.

Now in 2021, the community has wised up to the game of John Deere. Everyone knows at John Deere you’ll get laid off and might not get back. Why would I leave a mediocre job to work for a slightly better paying job and benefits, if I’ll just end up on the street in a few years?

So now they had to lower their standards for hiring. It used to be that you needed experience or a related degree to get a job at John Deere. Because of the difficulty in finding people to hire and an increase in orders at John Deere, workers feel confident that we will win. In 2015, Deere had $1.94 billion in profits. In 2021, Deere is projected to have $5.9 billion in profits. We want our share of the pie, and if Deere wants to keep making massive amounts of money they’re going to have to pay us! We’re not going to turn another bolt or lay another weld until they do! We’ve had enough and we have a 90% contract rejection to prove it.

EG: What’s the biggest challenge facing workers on the picket line? How is the union planning on keeping up morale and connecting the support for the struggle to the local community where the workers live?

JS: Our pay has gone down year after year, inflation is on the rise, and the Midwest winters are cold and harsh. Recently, the monopoly energy company of the area, MidAmerican Energy stated that their customers should expect to see a 50% to nearly 100% increase in their energy bill this winter. It is harder to save money to prepare for a strike with things like this happening, but many people have second jobs or side hustles in preparation for this strike. Myself included.

The difference between the strike of 1986 and 2021 is that in the ’80s, there was a recession. Today, every place is hiring. In the 1986-87 strike, there were few improvements when an agreement was reached. A small raise, improved recall rights, shareholder dividends cut in half. In 2021, we have the ability to get another job and show up for our picket duty, whereas in 1986 that likely wasn’t as easy.

So far, the community support has been overwhelming. Many small businesses are donating meals or discounted meals. Donations from fellow workers or other community members pour into the union hall. If John Deere was banking on their image as a pillar of the community, they have massively overplayed their hand.

For most of us working at John Deere currently, we’ve never been on strike before. We are much more prepared today than we were in 2009 or 2015 because we saw the signs and knew we had to be ready. So as we go through a little bit of a learning curve, the community support was instant and has filled any gap. That support is something we will never forget.

EG: What can our readers do to support the strike? Any final comments?

JS: Please spread the word!

Contact local 865 about how you can make a contribution to the strike (309) 755-5273

Photo: Courtesy of Local 249, United Auto Workers.

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