Op-ed: As Striketober Becomes Strikesgiving, Stand in Solidarity with Food Workers and Farmers | Civil Eats

Op-ed: As Striketober Becomes Strikesgiving, Stand in Solidarity with Food Workers and Farmers

The head of the Wisconsin Farmers Union says food and farm companies like John Deere and Kellogg’s are taking advantage of workers while executives rake in record profits and salaries.

DAVENPORT, IOWA - OCTOBER 15: Striking workers picket outside of the John Deere Davenport Works facility on October 15, 2021 in Davenport, Iowa. More than 10,000 John Deere employees, represented by the UAW, walked off the job yesterday after failing to agree to the terms of a new contract. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

DAVENPORT, IOWA – OCTOBER 15: Striking workers picket outside of the John Deere Davenport Works facility on October 15, 2021 in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It’s been 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 it did in all of 2013, its best year on record so far. Net income for the nine months ending Aug. 2 was nearly $4.7 billion. John May, the company’s CEO, made more than $14.7 million in total compensation in 2020. His salary reportedly increased 160 percent during the pandemic while laid-off manufacturing workers saw cuts to “incentive” pay—the bonuses that workers receive for achieving production goals/targets.

In mid-October, 10,000 unionized skilled manufacturing employees at Deere & Co. initiated their right to bargain by rejecting a contract that offered to raise their pay by little more than $1 per hour over the next six years and going on strike. The company had also reportedly laid off dozens of workers and lowered salaries, citing depressed demand due to the tariff wars with China.

Last week, Deere management came back with an improved offer, but workers rejected that too, saying that it doesn’t do enough for those at the lower end of the pay scale. The company boasts that it pays skilled workers $30/hour. That sounds like a fair wage, but those salary figures include “incentive pay” which is not guaranteed and which workers say is used to get them to work as fast as possible at all times. As of Wednesday, Strikers have returned to the picket lines outside Deere facilities.

The last time Deere & Co. workers went on strike was in 1986. The movement, at times becoming violent, lasted 163 days and resulted in record losses for the company and stronger union benefits.

And the Deere workers are hardly alone in their fight. With a tight labor market, worker exhaustion, and record profits, unionized workers all across the U.S. are using collective muscle to exert pressure on employers to pay and treat them better. So many workers are striking that last month was dubbed “Striketober,” and some have branded November “Strikesgiving.”

“With a tight labor market, worker exhaustion, and record profits, unionized workers all across the U.S. are using collective muscle to exert pressure on employers to pay and treat them better.”

Workers across the nation have been taking bold action, with the strikes sweeping across sectors, beyond the food and agricultural industries to steelworkers, airlines, taxi drivers, and health care providers, according to data collected by Cornell University. Even companies like Netflix and Chipotle have faced the wrath of workers who have grown weary of workplace injustices.

Alongside low pay, treatment of employees is coming to the surface. Workers at Frito-Lay—which also exceeded its profit goals during the pandemic—went on strike for three weeks this summer, citing concerns over forced overtime, 100-degree plus conditions, and “suicide shifts.” The workers were successful in ending the practice of assigning the grueling 12-hour shifts, which took place less than 8 hours apart.

Nabisco union workers were successful in securing a wage hike and better benefits after they went on strike in September. Parent conglomerate Mondelez International angered employees when it proposed turning eight-hour shifts into 12-hour ones without overtime. The company also tried to shift additional health insurance costs onto new employees.

Meanwhile, Kellogg’s union workers who were fed up with working 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, with mandatory overtime, 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. They have been on the picket line for a month now. 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. But at multiple plants across the nation, Kellogg legacy workers stood up for the next generation.

Farmers are also in the fight. In the case of Deere, the struggle has taken place over the last several years as farmers have pushed for policies that allows them to repair their own tractors. Ask Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer about struggles to get his tractor fixed.

“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,” he told NPR in May. “That’s wrong.”

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In July, the Biden administration included language about the right to repair in its Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. But it is yet to be seen whether companies like Deere will face regulation.

Some skeptics say the Deere strike will lead to higher equipment prices for farmers. But those prices have already risen exorbitantly in recent years, while May pulls in an income 300 times that of the average American.

“Hey food giants, we’re disappointed in you. Farmers and workers are being taken advantage of while those at the top rake in record profits and salaries.”

The farmer’s share of a $4.99 box of breakfast 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 and yet some folks are getting filthy rich off this exploitative system. But the recent wave of strikes is showing that workers are fed up and willing to put their livelihood on the line in ways that we haven’t seen in decades.

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, we’re disappointed in you. Farmers and workers are being 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 Wisconsin Farmers Union explored in our eight-episode Farmer–Labor Solidarity Podcast. Corporations will try every technique possible to divide workers, farmers, and consumers. Don’t fall for it.

What can be done? For starters, you can help those workers who are still striking; there are several GoFundMe campaigns active for Deere and Kellogg’s strikers. Secondly, if you hold shares in a company that is providing obscene pay to its CEO, contact its board of directors and complain. Finally, you can help push for policy reform. Ask your federal legislators to make a tax penalty for corporations that have excessive CEO-to-worker pay ratios, for example. Or engage in National Farmers Union’s Fairness for Farmers campaign, which is fighting for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws and a break-up of monopolies that use their size to unfairly take advantage of farmers and consumers.

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You can also look to the White House’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy for a solid list of provisions beyond the right to repair that would restore robust competition and address the consolidation that has left American workers at the mercy of corporate power and corruption.

Thinking of all the ways these workers work for us, I urge you to please consider those who are being taken advantage of in the food chain—and encourage friends and family to stand in solidarity with these historic strikes.

Julie Keown-Bomar is executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and has a Ph.D in anthropology. Read more >

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