I’m striking at John Deere. We’re tired of layoffs and benefit losses while the company hits record profits.

John Deere workers on strike in Davenport, Iowa.
John Deere workers on strike on October 15, 2021 in Davenport, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • More than 10,000 John Deere workers are on strike after rejecting a six-year union contract with the company.
  • One longtime employee told Insider about their experience with the strike and why they voted for it in the first place.
  • This is their story, as told to freelance writer Jamie Killin.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with one of the 10,000 John Deere employees currently on strike, whose employment has been verified by Insider. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve worked at John Deere for 17 years on the line, and now I’m on strike fighting for fair wages and benefits for myself and future generations.

Nearly two weeks ago, more than 10,000 John Deere workers – including me – began our strike. About 90% of union members rejected a proposed six-year contract just before the strike began. We feel like the company owes us more. We worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, John Deere is reporting record profits, and workers are pivotal to that. We simply want to protect ourselves and our futures.

I think the supply shortages we’re facing have played a role in the strike. People are getting tired of the cycle: We’ll have layoffs one day, and then the next day we’re working. Then we don’t have parts for three days, and then our bosses will schedule us on a Saturday so we can get just one more unit out.

Then we start the whole process back over on Monday.

I understand that John Deere is running a business. But when you get into constant scheduling and cancellations at the last minute, that’s not necessarily running a business. That’s trying to scrape by.

The companies that we work for have never had trouble getting applicants, until now

The industry norm – always having more than enough applicants – has changed lately, much like it has in many other industries, where workers are quitting in droves.

I think when I joined the company in 2004, I was one of 200 hired that month – and that’s not to exclude the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of applicants who didn’t even make it through the hiring process.

Now, they’re holding job fairs and I’ve heard they’re getting five people to show up. Maybe 10.

I don’t blame people for not showing up. If you have years of experience and two weeks of vacation at your current job, you’re taking a big gamble coming into a company like Deere where you have very little vacation for the first year, you’re low on seniority, and the wages are no better than what you’re already making.

John Deere hires during upticks in the economy and upticks in production, then a few years later, they lay off. We work with guys who have been hired and laid off a couple times, and they don’t want to do it again.

I voted for the strike because if the strike authorization doesn’t pass, then you have no bargaining power. You have nothing to fall back on. The company can offer you any contract they want but you have no strike authorization, so you either accept it or that’s it.

The contract we got from John Deere just wasn’t good enough

In early October, our union – the United Auto Workers – came to an agreement with John Deere for a new six-year contract, but the majority of John Deere workers, including myself, rejected it.

The rejected contract included UAW-represented employees 5% to 6% wage increases, as well as 3% increases in 2023 and 2025. But for workers hired after Nov. 1, John Deere would trade our pension plan for a 401(k).

I support the local union 100%, but I was a bit taken aback that the bargaining committee believed that what they were presenting to us was a good contract based on the employee surveys.

The union handed out surveys to people to list their top five things that they’d like to see when it came bargaining time, and it seemed like none of those were addressed.

I think it was unanimous that we wanted post-retirement healthcare and post-retirement pension and wages. There was some beneficial stuff in there, but one of the top things we wanted was higher wages.

But 5%? Prices are up 5.4% this year alone.

I had a gentleman I work with tell me his father retired from Deere 35 years ago, and we are still not at the wages his father was at 35 years ago. Sure, $US20 ($AU27) an hour back in the 80s was a lot of money. But when you factor in the cost of inflation, housing, food, gas, and everything else, it doesn’t go very far in 2021.

There’s also a lot of animosity because of the different tiers of employees

There’s still a lot of animosity over what they call pre-97 and post-97 employees – those who were hired before 1997 with more benefits, and those hired after with fewer benefits.

They’re trying to do something similar now. One of the things that was presented in this new contract was that anyone hired after November 2021 was going to lose benefits, like the pensions, and a lot of the membership didn’t feel that was right.

There’s a saying that goes, “You’re not borrowing things from your parents; you’re giving them to your children.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean my children, but anybody in the community from years on down. I don’t want to be one of the guys in 15 years who everybody looks at and has animosity toward because we voted in a contract that we knew wasn’t in the best interest of everybody. The union is not an individual; it’s about the whole.

So far during the strike, community and membership support has been fantastic

That’s obviously just at the current moment. We haven’t been on strike that long. Temperatures are still nice. It’s new to everybody. Nobody’s really had an effect in their paycheck. We did receive a check last week. We’ll receive a partial check next week. So, we’ll kind of see how it goes from here.

With social media, the wage workers have had the opportunity to speak out for themselves on things that were maybe misrepresented elsewhere.

A lot of the membership has been very upset, because you get bad press in that everybody looks at the Deere workers and thinks, “Oh, they’re just greedy, they want more money.”

But they don’t understand that it’s not like we make a substantial amount of money. I mean, nobody’s getting rich here, and if you do make more money, it’s because you work so much that you might as well live here.

John Deere used to be a company where one family member could work and support a family comfortably – maybe not extravagantly, but comfortably. Now, I’d say that most families require a two-income household.

You wouldn’t think it would need to be like that when you’re working for a multi-billion-dollar business.