Surprise, John Deere workers can see the contract before voting on it
Ten thousand members of John Deere’s Auto Workers (UAW) will vote on a new contract on Sunday, October 10. Unexpectedly, they can see the wording of proposed changes to their contract several hundred pages before the vote. UAW International released the language online last night, along with a summary of the contract and proposed pension amendments.
The tentative agreement, which covers nine locals in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, was initially announced last Friday, but the union did not reveal any details. Workers at the farm equipment maker expected to have to pick up scanty highlight material from their union offices starting this morning (“One highlighter per member. No exceptions,” a section’s Facebook page pointed out. local).
But it seems likely that members’ frustration at not being able to see the full language of the changes, along with the high-profile contract rejections by UAW members at Volvo’s Virginia truck plant earlier this year, urged the union to post more information online.
In the 24-page contract summary, the UAW negotiators highlight what they see as the main gains. These include keeping the current Medicare plan without premium (as opposed to a plan requiring them to pay 20% of premiums, as Deere has threatened); reinstate the cost of living adjustment that was removed in the previous contract; and an 11 percent increase over six years. In 2022, 2024 and 2026, workers will receive 2% lump sum payments instead of pay increases.
The list of highlights also mentions “improved retirement and retirement”. This is partly true – for current employees hired since 1997, the pension plan will increase (but not nearly to the highest 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 Deere was determined to end the moratorium on the plant shutdown, end overtime after eight hours, eliminate seniority-based pay increases 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 deal does not remedy the decades-long grievances workers have against Deere. The most important is the two-tier retirement system: only those hired before 1997 receive full pension and health care after retirement. The pension of anyone hired in the past quarter century is only a third of that of their older colleagues, and they do not receive health care for retirees. Not to mention the lower wages and benefits while they’re still at work.
By eliminating the pension entirely for new recruits, the agreement in principle doubles the system of steps: now, instead of two, there will be at least three steps with regard to retirement.
ELEVENTH HOUR EXTENSION
A week earlier, members had counted the hours until the contract expired. Many expected to march on a picket line when the clock struck midnight on October 1.
Locals had assigned picket duties and organized carpools for various shifts. At the Ottumwa, Iowa, plant, management canceled the third shift and emptied perishables from vending machines.
It came as a shock to at least some members when, at 12:01 am that evening, Local 281 in Davenport, Iowa, posted on their Facebook page: “We have been advised by the bargaining team that we are on an extension. Good progress has been made, but they are still talking. See you at work tomorrow.
The union’s website had few details – just a two-sentence post that read: “The UAW and John Deere have agreed to extend the current collective agreement as the parties continue to move forward towards a tentative agreement. . Any updates or changes to the state of negotiations will be communicated through our locals. “
Some felt that an extension meant the union was reneging on its threat to strike. Members expressed their outrage on social media. “What happened to all the ‘Front Strike So Provoked’ BS?” A member commented on a local’s Facebook post. “What is the union definition of provoked? Can we have shirts saying “I will back down if threatened?” “”
One concern was that postponing a walkout would give Deere more time to build an inventory, weakening the influence of workers. “If we give Deere two more weeks to catch up with production and they don’t bring in any good, the torches and forks come in,” said Chris Laursen, former president of Ottumwa Local 74. “The members are in no mood at all to enter into another concession contract.”
About 12 hours later, the company and the union announced that they had reached an agreement in principle.
FRUSTRATION AND MISTRUST
Sunday’s ratification vote may be about more than the content of the deal. Workers have long been frustrated with the bargaining process and the little communication they receive about it. In the last round of negotiations in 2015, members only received details of the deal when they voted in ratification meetings. This agreement was adopted by less than 200 votes. And the eleventh hour extension only added to the frustrations.
“Everything about them is always a big secret,” says Trever Bergeron, an iron tipper with Local 838 at the foundry in Waterloo, Iowa. “We’re the last thing they think about. “
Since an agreement was announced last week, several locals have restricted comments on their Facebook pages and have stressed that no questions will be allowed in the room while the summaries are being distributed, only during ratification votes.
The Deere contract is the biggest deal the UAW has negotiated since corrupt former union chairman Gary Jones resigned in November 2019. Former UAW vice chairman Norwood Jewell, who led negotiations on the Deere’s latest contract, was sentenced to 15 months in prison in August 2019 for accepting illegal payments from Fiat Chrysler. While there is no evidence linking the Deere negotiations to the corruption scandal, many members are suspicious of the International.
UAW members will begin voting later this month in a referendum on whether to move to direct elections for top union leaders, rather than the delegate system that has maintained control of the union. one-party leadership positions over the past seven decades. Anger over two-tier contracts and secret negotiations will likely have an impact on this vote.
On Sunday we’ll see if the frustration over these same issues at Deere produces a ‘no’ vote on the contract.