What UAW members gained with five-week strike

Iowa's largest strike in decades is over after nearly five weeks. About 10,000 United Auto Workers members, including nearly 7,000 in Iowa, ratified the latest tentative agreement with John Deere by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent on November 17.

The offer was only marginally different from the agreement UAW members voted down on November 2 by 55 percent to 45 percent. But many workers appear to have been convinced that this was truly Deere's "last, best and final" offer, as management repeatedly claimed. Some local leaders warned the company might not come back to the negotiating table, or could hire strikebreakers if the UAW rejected the offer.

The last time John Deere employees went on strike in 1986, it took more than five months to resolve the impasse. Hundreds of UAW members who voted no in early November were unwilling to roll the dice on going into the winter receiving strike pay of only $275 a week, with no guarantee the final deal will be better than today's tentative agreement. Tyler Jett reported for the Des Moines Register that support for the tentative agreement rose among UAW members at all five Deere facilities in Iowa.

There's no doubt in my mind that the hugely profitable equipment manufacturer could have offered its workforce more generous terms. On the other hand, the new contract improves greatly on the company's first offer in October. By going on strike, the UAW obtained the following:

  • A 10 percent pay raise immediately (the previous offer called for 5 percent or 6 percent)
  • An additional 5 percent raise in 2023 and another 5 percent raise in 2025 (Deere had offered 3 percent and 3 percent early last month)
  • Quarterly cost-of-living increases, which were eliminated in Deere’s 2015 contract
  • $8,500 bonuses for each worker on approval of the contract, and lump sum payments of 3 percent of a worker’s qualified earnings in 2022, 2024, and 2026
  • Pension payments will increase, and future hires will continue to be part of the pension program (the company's first offer had established a third tier for employees hired after November 1)
  • Larger lump sum payments for the first five years of retirement, compared to the previous offer
  • Health care benefits that remain unchanged throughout the six-year contract

In addition to those tangible gains, labor reporter Jonah Furman tweeted, UAW members "showed the country that you can still strike and win big."

The John Deere strike also revealed that most Iowans were sympathetic to the union position. The latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom indicated that 58 percent of adults surveyed "mostly side with Deere workers," just 16 percent "mostly side with the employers," 19 percent were unsure and 7 percent didn't support either side. Jett reported for the Register on November 15,

Striking UAW members have a majority or plurality of Iowans' support regardless of political party, age, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation, income bracket or whether they live in a rural or urban area. [...]

Among respondents under 35, 72% say they side with the workers, while 4% say they side with Deere. Fifty-two percent of Iowans 35 or older side with workers; 21% side with the company. 

Among Democrats, 75% side with the workers and 7% with the company. Among independents, 55% support the workers and 16% the company. A plurality of Republicans (49%) also support the workers, compared to 24% who say they side with the company. 

The Democrats' three-quarters support for workers is matched by people without religious affiliation (75%), compared with worker support by 59% of Catholics and 51% of Protestants.

Many Iowans with no direct connection to Deere or the UAW donated food, toiletries, and other essential items to support the workers on strike. Representatives of the UAW local in Ankeny told one supporter this week their tables had not been empty at any point since October 14.

With workforce shortages affecting many companies, what happened at Deere may embolden other union employees to demand better pay and benefits.

Top photo of UAW members on the picket line in Waterloo posted on Facebook by UAW Local 838 on November 16.

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