By Julie Keown-Bomar, Wisconsin Farmers Union Executive Director
It’s going to be a very good year for the top dogs and shareholders at Deere & Co. The Iowa-based equipment manufacturer says it earned more in the first nine months of its fiscal year than during its best year in 2013. The corporation’s third-quarter results are nearly $4.7 billion. John May, the company’s CEO, made over $14.7 million in total compensation in 2020. Reports are that his salary increased 160 percent during the pandemic while laid-off manufacturing workers saw “incentive” pay cut.
On October 14th, 10,000 unionized skilled manufacturing employees at Deere & Co. initiated their right to bargain by rejecting the contract put forth by management and going on strike. Does it surprise anyone that skilled workers went on strike after the company agreed to bump pay by little more than $1 per hour over the next 6 years? Deere management also proposed cutting pensions and creating a two-tiered workforce to limit new employee benefits. The company boasts that it pays skilled workers $30/hour. That sounds like a fair wage, but one has to take the company’s propaganda with a grain of salt -- salary figures include “incentive pay” that most Deere workers are forced to rely on to make a living wage.
Today, workers are voting on another proposal that would bump wages 10% in the first year, then by 5% every other year with 3% lump sum payments every year in between. It’s anticipated that the strikers will resume their positions on picket lines outside Deere facilities tonight.
Farmers have their own standoff with John Deere and have led the charge to pass right to repair laws. Ask Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer about struggles to get his tractor fixed and he notes, “These equipment manufacturers are holding me hostage to them, forcing me to use their dealerships to repair my equipment - on their schedule, on their time and at their rates. That's wrong.”
With a tight labor market, worker exhaustion, and record corporate profits, unionized workers are using collective muscle to exert pressure on employers to pay and treat workers better. So many workers are striking that this fall has been dubbed Striketober.
Alongside low pay, treatment of employees is coming to the surface. Workers at Frito-Lay went on strike this summer, citing concerns with forced overtime, 100-degree plus working conditions, and “suicide shifts” less than 8 hours apart. Frito-Lay also exceeded profit goals during the pandemic.
Before you dunk that Oreo cookie in a milk bath of sad despair, note that Mondelez International, parent conglomerate of Nabisco, angered employees when it proposed turning eight-hour shifts into 12-hour ones without overtime. Workers would receive overtime on the sixth and seventh days. The company also tried to move additional health insurance costs onto the shoulders of new employees.
Fed up with 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, with mandatory overtime, Kellogg union workers were pushed over the edge by the company’s drive to create a two-tiered system that would downgrade wages and benefits for “transitional” workers. Like the aforementioned companies, Kellogg’s top dogs know one of the most effective ways to destroy union loyalty is to pit workers against one another. Kellogg legacy workers stood up for the next generation, and they all went on strike to preserve benefits.
Another technique is threatening to take jobs elsewhere. At the Kellogg bargaining table, union negotiators were told they must accept the offer or jobs would be taken to Mexico.
The farmer’s share of a $4.99 box of cereal is $.12 and this pittance has been dropping for decades. The American food system is characterized by cheap food at an unfair cost to farmers, laborers, and the land. Striketober is showing that some folks are getting filthy rich off this exploitative system. Kellogg’s CEO made $11.6 million last year and received a 20 percent salary increase from 2020 to 2021. Yet this profit-making corporation had the gall to say it was “disappointed” that its essential production workers went on strike.
Hey food giants, I am disappointed in you. Farmers and workers are getting taken advantage of while those at the top rake in record profits and salaries.
Farmers and labor have stood together in the past as the WFU farmer labor solidarity podcast illustrates. Corporations will try every technique possible to divide workers, farmers, and consumers. Don’t fall for it.
As you eat your next bowl of Froot Loops or Kashi, please consider those who are being taken advantage of in the food chain -- and encourage friends and family to stand in solidarity this Striketober.
Julie Keown-Bomar is executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Learn more at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com.