Warmed By Burn Barrels, Pelted By Sleet, Striking Workers Have More Resolve Than John Deere

A vote on a tentative agreement is just around the corner, but these Illinois workers are still on strike.

Jennifer Bamberg

A member of UAW Local 865 in East Moline, Illinois grabbing donated snacks from the picket line shanty. (Jennifer Bamberg)

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On the first day of freezing daytime temperatures and blustery snow storms across the Quad Cities, Phil Janecek — an inspector at the John Deere Parts Distribution Center in Milan, Illinois, and strike captain at this picket line — received a screenshot of a United Auto Workers press release. It said the company had made its last tentative agreement (TA) to the negotiating team and included modest modifications” to the second offer made November 2.

Later that night, Janecek and his team of six strikers, who hail from United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 79, were assigned picket duty. They gathered around glowing 55-gallon burn barrels and took shelter from the sleet and wind in a shanty built with reclaimed materials. They talked about the fact that they’d be voting on another TA on November 17, much sooner than they thought they would be. The members were determined to outlast the harsh Midwestern winter, but it looks like the company can’t outlast the strike. 

The company’s third offer comes after 90% of the workers voted no on the first TA, and the second was struck down three weeks later by 55%. The second TA doubled the raise proposed in the first contract from 5% to 10%, eliminated the proposed third tier (which would have made new hires ineligible for the company’s pensions), and increased workers’ pensions overall. The company called it the best and final offer,” but this strike has been years in the making, and the list of demands stretches far beyond those proposals. Strikers out on the picket line talked about wanting an overhaul on what some called a broken grievance process and a broken incentive pay program, better retirement for everyone (currently the two-tier system separates pre-1997 hires and post-1997 hires), and increased wages. 

Josh Saunders is a committeeman in Zone 4, UAW Local 865 in East Moline, Illinois. His job is to handle grievances, like the fact that employees don’t receive a hardcopy of their pay stubs, and, according to him, the electronic kiosks that the company provides for workers to view and print their paystub is inadequate. So there’s wage theft going on,” he says. Whether or not it’s intentional, I guess that’s up for debate. But people are getting paid wrong. (The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment but, if it does, this piece will be updated.).” 

Then there’s the incentive” program CIPP (pronounced kip”). CIPP stands for Continuous Improvement Pay Plan. It’s a complicated piece rate formula that determines bonuses according to increased departmental performance. As an incentive to speed up production, employees are offered quarterly bonuses on top of their regular hourly wages (maintenance workers are excluded from this program). Management sets a performance expectation, and when workers exceed 115% of that production goal, funds are put into a CIPP account. But when workers fail to meet those targets, money comes out of the account. As long as workers meet that 115% goal, the baseline for production increases by 2% every six months. You’re always working harder and harder and harder,” said one worker in Milan. But every time they give you a dime they make $10,000,” said another. 

One worker said that the largest CIPP bonus he ever received in the 16 years he’s worked there was $9,000 over 10 years ago. Another worker said his latest CIPP bonus was $2 total, all for working at breakneck speed during a pandemic. Ten years ago it was good, but now it’s just a way to speed up production,” the UAW Local 79 worker said.

A member of UAW Local 865 in East Moline, Illinois gazes at the burn barrel. Jennifer Bamberg

Prior to this third proposed contract agreement, specific details about the CIPP were not spelled out in the contract. For example, workers say that Deere found a way to reorganize how the CIPP gets divided among workers at the Harvester Works factory in East Moline. Deere began a pattern of moving production departments to new locations within the same facility or splitting up departments into smaller departments and then changing the CIPP formula, they say. Deere says it does this for the sake of efficiency and calls it
new work.” The workers call it manipulating the system. Even if the same exact workers are producing the same exact product as before, those workers suddenly found their CIPP accounts drained. And nothing changed other than turn the machine 90 degrees, and send it down the line,” says Saunders.

The UAW recently lost a multi-million dollar arbitration process over lost CIPP payouts. The new contract includes bumping CIPP payment (and production target goals) to 120%, which will be paid weekly instead of quarterly, and updating the CIPP formulas. But workers want to be assured that this manipulation will be prohibited in the future.

During the pandemic and the nationwide labor shortage (or, as some put it, the nationwide shortage of good paying jobs where workers have rights), suppliers had trouble producing parts and sending raw materials on time. Without those parts, autoworkers couldn’t work at an incentive pace, yet Deere still penalized workers by withdrawing money from their CIPP accounts. Workers say their earnings dropped.

You’re gonna deteriorate our earnings for something that’s beyond our control. This incentive system is not working very well,” says Saunders.

Meanwhile, money has been flowing to shareholders.

Striking for rest

For many long-term Deere workers, this is the first time they’ve had any time off in years. Even though organizing and being on strike is a lot of work, some members talked about how spending more time resting or being at home with their families is one of the perks of being on strike. Working mandatory overtime plus three mandatory Saturdays for years has made work a hellhole” according to one worker in Milan.

It’s a shame we have to work 58 hours a week plus weekends just to make ends meet,” said another.

The turnover rate at Deere facilities is so high that the Quad City picket lines seemed to be made up of exclusively old timers — veterans who have a decade or more under their belt — and brand new hires, some with barely a few days of training before the strike started. I thought they made a lot of money, but turns out they just work a lot,” said 25-year-old Junior (who only gave his first name out of concern for retaliation), who’s only worked at the Harvester factory in East Moline for two months.

Then there are supplemental workers. A Local 79 worker at the Parts Distribution Center in Milan, Illinois, who only gave only his first name as Mike, says he’s worked there for 10 years and started off as a supplemental worker.

Supplemental workers are full-time workers who receive fewer benefits than full UAW members. The job title made more sense years ago when it was common for farmers to take on seasonal work at the warehouse in between the harvesting and planting. But Mike says it’s expanded to the point where Deere takes advantage of people in need of employment by keeping them in that status for years.

He said he’s worked for four manufacturers in the past, but they all left the region or closed shop, and he has nothing to retire on. He started working at the Parts Distribution Center 10 years ago, but the first four of those were as a supplemental worker, and don’t count towards his retirement. He said he’s planning to retire when he’s 70.

Huge generator-powered lights illuminate the picket lines in Milan, and strikers wear high-visibility vests. After 15-year employee Richard Rich was struck and killed while walking to the picket line on October 27, both the city and the union made efforts to make the busy crossing more safe. There was a light out and it was dark unfortunately,” says strike captain Janecek , That’s the reason why we’re shuttling people to and from and making sure they get back to their cars.”

While he explains this, cars slow down and honk in support.

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Jennifer Bamberg is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.

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