Thousands of U.S. workers go on strike at agricultural giant Deere

More than 10,000 Deere & Co. workers went on strike Thursday, the first major walkout at the agricultural giant in more than three decades.

The union had said its members would walk off the job if no deal had been reached by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. The vast majority of the union rejected a contract offer earlier this week that would have delivered five per cent raises to some workers and six per cent raises to others at the Illinois company known for its green tractors.

“The almost one million UAW retirees and active members stand in solidarity with the striking UAW members at John Deere,” UAW president Ray Curry said.

Brad Morris, vice-president of labour relations for Deere, said in a statement that the company is “committed to a favourable outcome for our employees, our communities and everyone involved.”

He said Deere wants an agreement that would improve the economic position of all employees.

“We will keep working day and night to understand our employees’ priorities and resolve this strike, while also keeping our operations running for the benefit of all those we serve,” Morris said.

The Deere production plants are important contributors to the economy, so local officials hope any strike will be short-lived.

“We definitely want to see our economy stabilize and grow after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati said to the Quad-Cities Times. “Hopefully, these parties can come to a resolution soon.”

The strike is taking place in the middle of the corn and soybean harvest season, at a time when farmers are struggling to find parts for tractors and combines.

First strike at company in decades

The contracts under negotiation covered 14 Deere plants across the United States, including seven in Iowa, four in Illinois and one each in Kansas, Colorado and Georgia.

The contract talks at the Moline, Ill.-based company were unfolding as Deere is expecting to report record profits between $5.7 billion and $5.9 billion this year. The company has been reporting strong sales of its agricultural and construction equipment this year.

As a result of that performance, CEO John May’s total compensation jumped last year to nearly $16 million, from $5 million the previous year, according to SEC filings.

Deere, which has about 27,500 employees in the United States and Canada, had earlier said its operations would continue as normal. The company’s presence in Canada includes nine parts and distribution centres, according to the company’s website.

Thirty-five years have passed since the last major Deere strike, but workers were emboldened to demand more this year after working long hours throughout the pandemic and because companies are facing worker shortages.

“Our members at John Deere strike for the ability to earn a decent living, retire with dignity and establish fair work rules,” said Chuck Browning, vice-president and director of the UAW’s Agricultural Implement Department. “We stay committed to bargaining until our members’ goals are achieved.”

Private sector strikes relatively rare

Chris Laursen, who works as a painter at Deere, told the Des Moines Register before the strike that it could make a significant difference.

“The whole nation’s going to be watching us,” Laursen said to the newspaper. “If we take a stand here for ourselves, our families, for basic human prosperity, it’s going to make a difference for the whole manufacturing industry. Let’s do it. Let’s not be intimidated.”

Earlier this year, another group of UAW-represented workers went on strike at a Volvo Trucks plant in Virginia and wound up with better pay and lower-cost health benefits after rejecting three tentative contract offers.

But overall just 6.3 per cent of American private sector workers belong to a union, compared to nearly 35 per cent of public sector workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the public sector number has remained relatively steady since 1980, the private sector number has plummeted from a rate of about 20 per cent four decades ago.

Before the pandemic hit, the same government agency noted an uptick in overall U.S. strike activity in 2018 and 2019, albeit from historic low levels of work stoppages during the 1990s and the first decade of this century.

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