Strikes, labor and unions

Oct 22, 2021  | 28 min  | Ep 4910 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests include Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and Paul Iversen, labor educator and coordinator of the Quality Preapprenticeship Program at the University of Iowa Labor Center. They discuss the current UAW strike at John Deere and the status of labor, unions and workers rights in Iowa. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, and Clay Masters, Morning Edition host and lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Thousands of American workers have recently voted to go on strike, including the UAW members at Deere & Company plants in Iowa. We'll dive into the issues surrounding organized labor on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 22nd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Some people online have been referring to this month as strike-tober. Earlier this month, UAW members at Deere & Company rejected a contract offer. On October 14th, 10,000 John Deere employees went on strike. We have guests today who are here to talk about what is happening in the labor movement. First, Charlie Wishman is the President of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. And Paul Iversen is a labor educator at the University of Iowa's Labor Center. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Thank you for having us.

Henderson: Also at the table, Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy who writes for the five Lee Enterprises newspapers in Iowa.

Murphy: Mr. Wishman, we'll start with you. This is the first time employees at John Deere have gone on strike in 35 years. Why now? What has led to this moment?

Wishman: Certainly, for those of us who had been talking to UAW members that work at Deere, I don't think that it was really any surprise that they turned down a contract offer like that and that they turned down the contract offer at a rate of 90% to 10%. And when you have a contract that is turned down by such a wide margin it tells me that there's not just specific things in the contract that they had problems with, though there are, but that there is something larger that is going on there. And when they worked throughout the entire pandemic and they were called essential workers yet at the same time Deere & Company is making massive, massive profits and not only that they see the executive pay that is going on at Deere. All they want is to get their share of what they believe is the fair share of the wealth that they have helped this company create throughout the pandemic. The other day on the strike line I was talking to a young brother and he said, look, we just want our fair share of this. Don't worry, we'll go back to making, we’ll help Deere make billions of dollars, but for now we just feel that we need to fight for ourselves and we're making a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain for ourselves and our families.

Murphy: Mr. Iversen, that is a sentiment you're hearing more often these days. Companies are making big profits, why aren't the workers getting their fair share? Kay mentioned this isn't the only strike out there right now, there are others taking place. Are there bigger forces at play here? Is this a movement in the country, the beginning of a movement that we're starting to see?

Iversen: Oh, definitely. So there are individual issues in the Deere case, but it is part of a nationwide movement. And COVID has caused people to reconsider what work is going to be like. And across the country they have said, we're not going back to the way things were before COVID, wages were so low, no benefits, not consistent schedules where people were working two or three jobs just to get by and literally didn't have the time to think about anything else. Well, in COVID when they got kicked to the curb suddenly they had time to think and said, this is not a way to live my life. And so in organized and unorganized ways across the country workers are getting together and saying, we want respect from our employers.

Murphy: How willing do you think companies will be to meet these changes that workers are asking for?

Iversen: Ultimately, the workers when they get together have a lot of power. And so in order -- employers can either cry we can't find anybody, or they adjust and pay better, respect their employees, treat them as human beings rather than cogs in a machine. And so I think ultimately employers will have to change the way that they approach employees or they're not going to have anybody, they're not going to be able to have anybody to do the work.

Masters: Let's talk about the John Deere strike. Thousands of workers here in the state, various different cities where we're talking, one of the direct things that they want are better health care benefits. This is something that has been after years of contract negotiations has been lessened. What are the chances that they're going to have success by striking and not going to work? Charlie, we'll start with you.

Wishman: Sure. I think there's a number of factors that Paul touched on I think that I think give workers the upper hand right now. And this is why, again, you're seeing what is dubbed as strike-tober, but this has started since before that. And it's not just health care. These folks are out there striking in part on behalf of employees who they have not even met yet, who haven't even been hired yet because one of the issues is they want to remove retirement, the retirement system for anybody hired after November 1st. So, folks who have lived with contracts that have divided workers into different tiered systems, they're saying enough is enough. And these are folks who are in their 40s and their 50s, they have busted their butts for Deere for 20 years and they have yet to, many of them feel that they have yet to even come close to the American dream and that is all they're asking for.

Masters: You brought up that tiered system for pay. Explain that. That's something that we kind of gloss over as we're talking. But what is meant by that and how common is it?

Wishman: Sure, this is something that had started to kind of proliferate throughout contracts in the last maybe 10, 20 years I think. And like I say, now that many of these members who were hired under those systems are coming of age and kind of coming into leadership positions and as these, especially again after having worked through the pandemic, being called essential, being called heroes, but then really being felt like, they really feel like they have been treated as expendable in many, many cases, they're saying enough is enough. And they're not going to pull the ladder up behind them like they feel like maybe has happened to them in the past. They're not just fighting for their generation because Deere is a company that you have generations of workers who have worked there. And all these folks want is not just the Deere that their parents had, but they want a better Deere for their kids and even their grandkids.

Henderson: Paul Iversen, what is the difference between this two-tiered system and what people often refer to as seniority? You get better pay if you've been at the company a long time.

Iversen: There is a huge difference between a two-tiered system and a seniority system. In a seniority system you get more pay as you go along, but at some point everybody doing the same job is making the same amount, equal pay for equal work. So if you're first hired you may not be making as much as a 15-year employee, but the 15-to-30 year employees are making the same amount. But the two-tier in this case is everybody that was hired after a certain date doesn't have the same benefits that the people hired before that date had. And it's something that employers offer cynically thinking that nobody is going to strike over people that haven't been hired yet. In this two-tiered system what it does is it causes dissention among the employees and a basic union principle is equal pay for equal work. And it prevents you ever having equal pay for equal work until all of the people hired before the two-tier date have retired and then everybody is under that tier. And so you have 30, 40 years of a basic union principle has been violated. And in this case Deere workers have said enough is enough.

Murphy: Pardon me, Mr. Iversen, often times negotiations like these are often about leverage and which side has it. In this case right now, John Deere or the striking workers? Who has the leverage in this current impasse?

Iversen: Well, as Charlie said, I think workers have the leverage here because it's very public how much money John Deere is making. 61% increase in profits over last year. CEO gets 160% pay increase. That is all public record and the strikers, when I have been on the picket line and talk to strikers, they know those numbers. And like one person said to me, this offer was a spit in the face. So they have literally risked their lives to go to work every day in the pandemic, made great product. John Deere products are great. That is why they're making money. And they're great because they have a skilled workforce that is committed to making Deere a quality product and they have done that through the pandemic and John Deere has the money to pay them. But --

Murphy: Charlie, I assume -- oh I'm sorry --

Iversen: I just want to say, they have the money to pay them. So they're not saying we can't do it, they're just saying we don't think you're worth it and the people feel that they're not being respected.

Murphy: I presume you would agree with that but I'll give you a chance to respond to the same question.

Wishman: Absolutely. Clearly it seems as though there's many, many factors I think right now that give workers, not just in Deere's case but whether it's Kellogg’s in Omaha and many other locations, there's labor strikes going on all over the place. In the past two weeks in Sioux City in non-union facilities you've had walkouts over pay and shift differential. There is something bigger going on here. And right now workers know that they have some leverage and it's time for them and they realize this, that's why you're seeing the beginnings, I believe, the front end of a worker uprising in this country.

Murphy: Charlie, I wanted to ask you, Deere in Davenport asked the courts for an injunction against the striking workers and it was granted and its effect is essentially that it limits the number of people who can be on the picket line near the property and other ways that kind of limit the way the strikers can conduct themselves. Does that signal to you that Deere is maybe in this for a protracted amount of time, that they expect this to be a long strike? Or what else would be the reason for asking for that injunction? And we're hearing that other plants in other cities are going to do the same.

Wishman: Sure, so this is not an uncommon thing I think in strikes as a way for a company to try and break a strike. And I would refer to, I would defer to Paul's legal expertise, but I think there is a reason why they're taking them to state court rather than federal court because if they took them to federal court I believe that these are, the actions that are going on as far as picketing and exercising their First Amendment rights and so on and even other things, they are protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Instead Deere is taking them to court over things like traffic violations in state court. So, again, Paul is the attorney here.

Henderson: Okay, Paul, weigh in.

Iversen: Yeah, this is an employer tactic for over 100 years. And it became such a common employer tactic -- employees have the right to strike. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that, the National Labor Relations Act recognizes that. But employers could get courts to enjoin strike activity, to try to restrict that. It became so common that a federal law was passed, the Norris–La Guardia Act way back in 1931, that set rules for how you could do a labor injunction. And one of those rules is you can't get that injunction unless the chief public safety officer of the jurisdiction, so the chief of police or the county sheriff, says that they have lost control of the situation. So you never get in federal court because no county sheriff that is going to stand up for election is going to say, I've lost control of the picket line. So they couldn't go to federal court to get this, so they go to state court. But the details, looking at it from an academic perspective and looking at the history of labor, the details are irrelevant. It's just a tactic that is used to try to disrupt people that are exercising their nationally and internationally recognized right to strike.

Henderson: Paul Iversen, I do want to have a follow up though. Why is there a picket line? Since the dispute is eventually perhaps hopefully resolved at the negotiating table, why is there a picket line?

Iversen: Well, the reason there is a picket line is that the company is not willing to provide an offer that the employees are willing to accept. So, your choice in that situation is you either keep working under the contract and keep going to the bargaining table, but if you do you risk the employer unilaterally implementing the terms that they have offered you. And if you don't want to accept that then your choice is to strike. And so if you decide to strike, that is a recognized way of dealing with the varying bargaining positions and the strike is meant to shut down the employer. That is the purpose of the strike. And so trying to bring in an injunction saying they're making it hard for us to work during the strike, that's what a strike does.

Murphy: But within that process, the picket line specifically, what does that achieve? Is it just generating public support? What specifically does people standing outside and picketing, what does that achieve to the workers' end?

Iversen: It advertises to people that you are on strike against this employer and if you go past this line you are saying that we don't care that the workers aren't working and think that they're not being treated fairly by the employer. And so that picket line is a very public display of okay, you go past this and you have disrespected all the workers that are saying don't do business with this employer until they give us a fair contract offer.

Wishman: I might add, you know, every place that you go where people are picketing there is amazing, amazing community support from Iowans. And this is a bipartisan thing, you can see folks with Trump stickers drive by honking and waving or you can see people who are clearly not on that side of the fence that are supportive of the strikers as well. And not only that you've got, in every community you have businesses that are coming out and say, we support you, and offering not just discounts and things like that but they're saying, we stand with striking Deere workers because they were there for us during the pandemic when they were having hard times as well.

Masters: Let's talk about some of this support. The Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines is full of lobbyists, it's full of lawmakers, but the most that I have ever seen people just from out on the street was in 2017 when the collective bargaining rights for public sector workers were taken away. It was packed. There were people that I spoke to that were not public sector union members, they were private sector union members saying that if it's affecting anybody that is a part of a union it's affecting me. Republicans have pressed for those changes, they have made gains in the legislature. Why didn't this move to a more galvanized process moving forward for unions?

Henderson: Charlie?

Wishman: So, in 2017 yes, definitely I was there for all of that and there was amazing solidarity that was going on at the time. And just the very first day of the strike, which by the way I was almost hit by a car by a salaried worker who was going in, there were at least people from seven different unions at the location that I was at. There's not just from other unions, but again in every community there is amazing community support of people supporting and going out --

Henderson: Right. But his question is about 2017, legislature takes action removing some rights from public sector workers. Why didn't the union movement then respond to that in a way that would have yielded action at the Statehouse?

Wishman: Well, I think if you're asking about voting patterns of union members, two things. Overwhelmingly, first of all, union members vote at a higher rate than the general public. That is what our data shows as well. And not only that, union members still despite I know a lot of the media narrative around elections are that many union members are now voting republican, but still overwhelmingly union members are voting democratic because they have seen in those cases and other cases and even nationally they're seeing that who is behind things like the PRO Act, which would expand organizing rights for union members, they're seeing that that is the democrats who are doing that.

Masters: Paul, did you have anything that you wanted to add to that? I've seen some head moving.

Iversen: Yeah, there's just a fundamental difference between a strike against an employer and political activity. For one, the employer needs the employees and they have an ongoing relationship. In the Iowa legislature in 2017, the prevailing party was not interested in public input, had one hearing, rushed the bill through and it was 10 days from the time the bill was introduced to the time it was signed. So the ground swell of public sentiment against it went on deaf ears, they weren't interested in hearing it, it was already decided that this was going to pass. And so the labor movement in Iowa has been united in supporting public sector workers and despite this law that was trying to destroy public sector bargaining the movement has gone through every year recertification elections and every year over 90% of people that vote, vote to keep their union.

Henderson: But, the crux of Clay's original question is, if there is a ground swell of opposition to what the legislature did in 2017, why haven't people who align with that view been elected to the legislature and to undo that action? Paul?

Iversen: That's a more complex issue. Part of it is that not everybody votes on economic issues. And so people may vote for a particular party that is not in their economic best interest to do so. And so who is in Des Moines makes a big difference as to whether anybody will listen. The ground swell is there, but that doesn't always translate immediately into changes in who has been elected.

Henderson: Erin?

Murphy: The Governor recently has proposed some changes to the state's unemployment system, specifically asking, requiring -- again, this is still a proposal -- but it would require unemployed workers to be a little more active, work one-on-one with state appointed counselors, do more work searches. Charlie, do you have any thoughts as a union representative on that potential impact on Iowans who are looking for work? Do you think it's fair to ask them to jump through a few more hoops? Or would this be asking too much in your view?

Iversen: Well, I think that it really isn't going to move the needle at all when it comes to the workforce problems that this state has. If you look, since the beginning of the pandemic we've had 92,000 Iowans, somewhere in that range, that have left the workforce. But if you look at how many people are on unemployment it's like 18,000. So one-fifth of people that have left the workforce is what the Governor is targeting here. And is for-work searches and the state starting to pick jobs for people, is that the answer to our workforce problems? I don't think it is at all. And yeah, sure, it's something that plays well to the Fox News base that she has. But is it going to actually do anything? No. And I think that we saw that back when pandemic unemployment assistance was ended earlier this year, it really didn't move the needle and we're still in these workforce issue problems and that is because of things like, there's a whole host of reasons, but you've had we're dealing with a lot of child care issues, we have, again, we've had people who don't feel like they have seen respect and dignity at the workplace throughout the pandemic and have thrown up their hands and says, I don't know if it's worth it to do this anymore for the wages and for the benefits that were being offered and not just the wages and the benefits, but again, the workplace conditions that they have been subjected to.

Henderson: Paul, final question, we don't have very much time left. The last strike at John Deere lasted 163 days. How long will this one last?

Iversen: If I knew that, that's something that no one can predict. What happens in strike situations looking at them historically it depends when people start looking at what is at the table more than what is not on the table. And right now to the people that are on the picket line, John Deere hasn't offered anything that they would be willing to take. So once there is something else there, maybe, but -- I would say the employees aren't going to give in and take the same offer.

Henderson: Well, I have to say our time for this discussion is over. Thanks, gentlemen, for joining us. And thanks for watching today. You can watch anytime at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa