In a Surprise, John Deere Workers Get to See Contract Before Voting On It
Ten thousand Auto Workers (UAW) members at John Deere will vote on a new contract on Sunday, October 10. Unexpectedly, they can see the language of proposed changes to their several-hundred-page contract ahead of the vote. The UAW International posted the language online last night, along with a contract summary and proposed amendments to the pension plan.
The tentative agreement, which covers nine locals in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, was initially announced last Friday, but the union revealed no details. Workers at the farm equipment manufacturer had expected to have to pick up skimpy highlights documents at their union halls starting this morning (“One highlighter per member. No exceptions,” emphasized one local’s Facebook page).
But it appears likely that member frustration over not being able to see the full language of changes, as well as high-profile contract rejections by UAW members at Volvo’s Virginia truck plant earlier this year, pressured the union into putting more information online.
In the 24-page contract summary, UAW bargainers highlight what they view as the top gains. These include maintaining the current premium-free health insurance plan (as opposed to going to a plan requiring them to pay 20 percent of premiums, as Deere threatened); reinstating the cost-of-living adjustment which was eliminated in the previous contract; and an 11 percent raise over six years. In 2022, 2024, and 2026, workers will receive 2 percent lump-sum payments instead of wage increases.
The list of highlights also mentions “pension and retirement improved.” That’s partly true—for current employees hired since 1997, the pension will go up (though not nearly to the top-tier pension levels). But anyone hired after November 1 of this year will not be eligible for the normal pension. Instead, new hires will be enrolled in a new cash-balance plan, as well as eligible for a 401(k).
The company’s initial offer, presented to members at their strike authorization vote meetings in September, contained a host of concessions. The union had warned that Deere was set on ending the plant closure moratorium, doing away with overtime after eight hours, eliminating seniority-based wage progressions, and many other draconian concessions. Members voted 99 percent to authorize a strike.
Deere appears to have backed down on many of these concessions at the bargaining table. But the tentative agreement doesn’t repair the decades-long grievances that workers hold against Deere. The biggest one is the two-tier retirement system: Only pre-1997 hires get a full pension and health care after they retire. The pension for anyone hired in the last quarter-century is only one-third as much as their more senior co-workers, and they don’t get retiree health care. That’s not to mention the inferior wages and benefits while they’re still on the job.
By eliminating the pension entirely for new hires, the tentative agreement doubles down on the tier system: now, instead of two, there will be at least three tiers when it comes to retirement.
A week earlier, members had counted down the hours to contract expiration. Many expected to be walking a picket line when the clock struck midnight on October 1.
Locals had assigned picket duties and arranged for carpools for different shifts. At the Ottumwa, Iowa, plant, management had cancelled third shift and emptied perishables out of the vending machines.
It came as a shock to at least some members when, at 12:01 a.m. that night, Local 281 in Davenport, Iowa, posted on its Facebook page: “We’ve been notified by the bargaining team we are on an extension. Good progress has been made but they are still talking. Report to work tomorrow.”
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The union website had little detail—just a two-sentence post that read: “The UAW and John Deere have agreed to extend the current collective bargaining agreement as the parties continue to make progress towards reaching a tentative agreement. Any updates or changes to the status of the negotiations will be communicated through our local unions.”
Some felt an extension signalled the union backing off of its strike threat. Members took their outrage to social media. “What happened to all the ‘Will strike if provoked’ BS?,” commented a member on one local’s Facebook post. “What is the union’s definition of provoked?? Can we get shirts saying ‘Will back down if threatened?’”
One worry was that postponing a walkout would give Deere more time to build up inventory, weakening the workers’ leverage. “If we give Deere an extra two weeks to catch up on production and they don’t bring back something good, the torches and pitchforks are coming,” said Chris Laursen, former president of Local 74 in Ottumwa. “The membership is not at all in the mood for another concessionary contract.”
Around 12 hours later, the company and the union announced they had reached a tentative agreement.
FRUSTRATION AND MISTRUST
Sunday’s ratification vote might be about more than just the contents of the deal. Workers have long been frustrated with the bargaining process, and with how little communication they receive about it. In the last round of negotiations in 2015, members only received the details of the deal as they were voting on it at ratification meetings. That agreement passed by fewer than 200 votes. And the eleventh-hour extension only added to frustrations.
“Everything is always a damn secret with them,” says Trever Bergeron, an iron pourer with Local 838 at the Waterloo, Iowa, foundry. “We are the last thing they think about.”
Since a deal was announced last week, several locals have restricted comments on their Facebook pages, and emphasized that no questions would be allowed at the hall while summaries were handed out—only at the ratification votes.
The Deere contract is the biggest deal negotiated by the UAW since the resignation of the union’s corrupt former president Gary Jones in November 2019. Former UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell, who led bargaining on the last Deere contract, was sentenced to 15 months in prison in August 2019 for taking illegal payments from Fiat Chrysler. While there’s been no evidence connecting the Deere negotiations to the corruption scandal, many members mistrust the International.
UAW members will start voting later this month in a referendum on whether to move to direct elections for the union’s top officers, rather than the delegate system that has maintained one-party control over leadership positions for the past seven decades. Anger over two-tier contracts and secretive bargaining are likely to impact that vote.
On Sunday, we will see if frustration over these same issues at Deere produces a “no” vote on the contract.