WATERLOO - It could have been better. But in today's lean economy, it could have been much worse.
That was the general feeling among many members of United Auto Workers Local 838 as they filed out of the McLeod Center on the University of Northern Iowa campus Sunday after hearing details of and voting on a new six-year labor agreement with Deere & Co.
UAW officials in Detroit announced shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday the agreement had been ratified by 82 percent of the membership companywide. The union did not release how the vote broke down among individual locals.
The agreement allowed union members to retain major provisions of their health insurance coverage while increasing co-payments. It provided for signing bonuses and annual lump-sum payments. But it did little to raise pay scales for lower-paid younger workers hired under a two-tier wage structure implemented in previous negotiations.
Shortly after the vote, many members of Local 838 said they expected the contract to be approved by a wide margin.
"For this economy, when so many of our brothers in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, even Iowa aren't working, it's good to have a contract," said one member of Local 838, who declined to give his name, shortly after the vote.
Union member Bill Knipp of Waterloo, a 37-year Deere employee who works at the downtown Westfield Avenue site, tailgated for the ratification meeting. He treated his union brothers and sisters to hot dogs and beverages after they voted, as he has at ratification meetings on previous contracts.
"For me, it's exactly what I needed to be able to feel secure and confident to go ahead and retire," Knipp said of the new agreement. "Because for somebody in my situation, you've got to know what kind of medical you're going to retire under...I would have worked longer had they made major cuts in our medical."
Some younger workers, however, expressed disappointment at the absence of major wage gains. Knipp said he understands their feelings.
"You bet I do," he said. "They wanted parity between us and them, and they were looking for some fairly large gains in that area. But once they started negotiations, they realized health care was the No. 1 issue for a large percentage of the work force."
Another Local 838 member who did not wish to be identified, who has been working at John Deere Waterloo works for more than 10 years, said he feels part of the new contract no longer guarantees job security for 10-year employees and pushes the threshold for the guarantee to 15 years.
"For me, the health care was the most important," he said.
Some Local 838 members said the difference in pay between longtime veteran workers and newer hires since 1997 was too steep.
Others conceded that creating the two-tiered wage system may have helped keep or increase the number of union jobs. UAW Local 838 officials have estimated the previous contract resulted in a net gain of more than 600 union-wage jobs at Deere's Waterloo operations.
"Some locals in Michigan offered to cut wages, but by then it was too late," one Local 838 member said. "We were smart enough to do that early on."
One woman said the contract would have been adequate for a three-year agreement, but the difference over six years was too much to be fair, in her opinion.
Under the contract, Moline, Ill.-based John Deere guarantees no plants will be closed. It guarantees workers a cost-of-living increase and annual lump sum payments at 2 percent of wages for those with less than five years of seniority. Those with more seniority will receive a 3 percent annual lump sum.
It also increases the company's co-pay under Medicare Part B and provides workers with personal legal counsel. It provides 87 paid holidays through the contract and increases vacation days from 2 1/2 weeks to three weeks for those who have at least 10 years' seniority and less than 15 years' seniority.
For new hires, their probation period increases from 90 days to seven months.
National UAW officials praised the agreement, given the current economy.
"In a difficult economic environment, the members of the UAW Deere National Negotiating Committee did an outstanding job of representing the interests of active and retired UAW members at Deere & Co.," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger.
"These negotiations presented our bargaining team with many challenges, and the key to our success was the solidarity and support of UAW members at Deere," said UAW Vice President Cal Rapson, who directs the union's agricultural implement department. "This new contract provides solid economic gains, protects health care and pensions and strengthens job security."
In a separate press release, Deere president and chief executive officer Samuel Allen said, "This agreement is good for our employees and good for the company. We appreciate the hard work and dedication of our work force as we team together to retain our position as a leader in the various markets we serve."