About 10,000 workers at farm equipment manufacturer Deere & Company approved a contract Wednesday, ending a five-week strike that hit 14 plants, mostly in Iowa and Illinois.
The six-year contract was ratified, 61 percent to 39 percent, after workers voted down two previous agreements between the union and the company known for its signature green-and-yellow John Deere products. The new contract includes language that makes the company’s performance more generous.
Under the agreement, workers can earn 20 percent more than their base wage if they meet productivity targets, rather than 15 percent, a union spokesman said.
The other provisions of the contract are the same as those in a proposal those workers turned down in early November, including pay increases of 10 percent this year and 5 percent each in 2023 and 2025, along with lump sum payments equal to 3 percent of wages in the remaining years of the contract.
That proposal also gave prospective employees a traditional pension — something current employees have, but which the union’s original agreement with the company didn’t include for new hires — and a post-retirement health care fund was established.
About 55 percent of workers voted against the second deal between Deere and the UAW, with some complaining that the pay increases were too small at a company that expected to make nearly $6 billion this fiscal year. Others cited the company’s incentive pay, whose goals they felt were too difficult for many employees.
Matt Pickrell, a longtime employee at a John Deere plant in Ottumwa, Iowa, said some workers languished in jobs where it was virtually impossible to earn performance-related benefits, such as workers on an assembly line slowed by supply chain disruptions.
Mr Pickrell said he had the seniority to get another job when it became clear there was no way to meet a new performance target but more junior employees didn’t have that option.
“It creates another level,” said Mr Pickrell, referring to a compensation system in which employees with less seniority receive lower wages or benefits.
Mr Pickrell said members of the union negotiating team told workers in Ottumwa on Wednesday morning that the company had promised to adjust its performance plan to better reflect circumstances beyond an employee’s control.
After workers turned down the second deal, Deere said the offer had been as generous as it could afford and had no intention of returning to the negotiating table. But the two sides continued discussions and reached a third agreement on Friday, proposing changes to the stimulus plan.
The strike was part of an increase in work stoppages in October, but since then some employers have avoided potentially major strikes by making last-minute deals with unions, including health care provider Kaiser Permanente and a group of Hollywood studios.
The workers’ willingness to vote down two proposals with significant wage increases reflected the strength of their bargaining power as the country faces labor shortages, as well as their specific impact on Deere.
While Deere had maintained during the strike that it was continuing its factory operations with the help of salaried workers, Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America, said in an interview this month that he was highly skeptical that the company could was to avoid a major impact on production.
He said this reflected the advantage employees enjoy who negotiate on a company-wide basis, which appears to be an approach common in Europe and South America, but relatively rare in the United States.
“There was an opportunity – we can push this as far as we can because the risks are low, they’re not producing anything,” said Mr. Cohen, who channels the mindset of the workers.
But some workers said they feared public opinion would turn against them if they walked away from a contract that contained substantial improvements.
“If we refused this, what would it look like to the public?” said Chris Laursen, another Deere employee in Ottumwa who opposed the original agreement, just before the second vote.
“If we take what we have now, it’s quite a victory for the American labor movement,” added Mr. Lawrence to it. “Hopefully it will help empower employees.”