Back in July, I took a weekend trip to Burlington, Iowa, to visit manufacturing workers at Case New Holland (CNH Industrial), who, along with their coworkers at another plant in Racine, Wisconsin, have been on strike since May 2. When I arrived, the early shift of picketers stood jovially together under the hot morning sun. Even at 10AM, the temperature was already a blistering 86 degrees, with humidity high enough that it made your clothes damp to the touch. The picketers didn’t seem to mind as they made their way slowly past the entrance to the Case New Holland plant, holding up a line of empty vans that had dropped off a shift of scab workers earlier. Workers wore “UAW 807 Solidarity” t-shirts and cracked jokes to one another as the hired security looked on from the other side of the fence, cameras at the ready.
The Case plant is nestled in an industrial park right at the city limits of Burlington, flanked by a county highway on one side and railroad tracks on the other. Picketers set up at multiple locations along the fence line, focusing their efforts on the areas with the busiest traffic coming and going from the plant. And boy, was it hot. Within an hour on the line, the heat from the pavement and passing semi-trucks formed a blast furnace that was hard to escape. At some of the picket locations, shelters were erected to shield picketers from the summer sun, though only some designated locations are capable of holding a full-sized shelter. In those locations with less traffic, umbrellas provided limited relief for some from the sun’s unrelenting rays, but picketers nevertheless lathered on sunscreen and stood resolute on the grass, “UAW On Strike” signs held high.
For Case workers, this was just another shift out on the line. Having spent over two months on strike by that point, they had settled into their routines—and spirits were still high. Workers taking shifts at the strike kitchen in nearby Gulfport township drove past each gate, calling out for trash pickup and taking orders for ice and water. At the main entrance, picketers sat together under their shelter and argued about who’s weather app was the most accurate in predicting the rain forecast. “Mine says 30% chance tomorrow,” one worker said. “Well, mine says 90, so that’s what we’re going with,” another fired back.
This wasn’t just idle picket line chat, either. Going on strike in a place like Burlington inevitably means figuring out how to keep the strike going while managing weather that is, to put it mildly, not especially manageable. “Iowa is a unique place,” said Nick Guernsey, UAW Local 807 president. “It’s hot, humid, [and] summertime is uncomfortable.”
Still, the conditions on the picket line were preferable to the unbearable heat inside the plant. “It’s dirty, filthy—I mean, hot,” Case worker Jammie Flowers said of the working conditions inside the plant back in July. “It could be 98 degrees out here, but it’s 120 something in there with the heat index.” Guernsey echoed those sentiments, calling attention to the working conditions that Case workers endure during periods of extreme heat. “It’s uncomfortable in that plant in the summertime,” Guernsey said. “We’d rather be working, but to take the summer off and not be in that plant is not the end of the world for us.”
CNH Industrial, a multinational corporation, is an agricultural machinery and construction equipment manufacturer with 13 locations across the United States producing its Case and New Holland brands of equipment. Workers at the Burlington and Racine locations are unionized with the United Auto Workers (UAW)—UAW Local 807 and Local 180, respectively—and have been embroiled in contentious contract negotiations with the company since earlier this year. Their previous six-year contract with Case New Holland officially expired on April 30. After weeks of stalled negotiations failed to produce an acceptable contract, over 1,000 workers in Burlington and Racine walked off the job on May 2.
As is the case at many manufacturing job sites across the country, workers at Case see their treacherous working conditions as simply part of the job; thus, working conditions have been less focal during negotiations. Central to the strike, however, is the fact that Case employs a punitive points-based attendance system and splits its workforce into three immovable tiers based on the date one was hired. This tier system—similar to those implemented at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere, where workers also went on strike last year—is designed to keep workers from finding equal footing with one another along wage lines. As Jonah Furman wrote in May at Labor Notes, “Workers hired before 1996 make $6 to $8 more per hour than those hired after 2004; those hired between 1996 and 2004 earn somewhere in between. Workers want to see at least the bottom tier abolished.” At the Burlington plant, the workforce is further divided into two departments: workers either help manufacture equipment for construction or agriculture.
UAW members in Burlington and Racine are hoping for a significant increase in wages, security in their health insurance, and better overtime and vacation policies. The previous offers floated by management haven’t done enough to address the ongoing problem of high inflation in the country. “It doesn’t really do us any good when bread’s $4.00 a loaf,” Guernsey said. “They haven’t been serious the whole time.”
As Ana Hernandez, who has worked at Case New Holland in Racine for 12 years, told The Journal Times in August, “They’re trying to increase the hours… mandatory overtime, 12 hours. We have families… We have done a lot for them, but I feel they don’t do a lot for me… I’m doing all this for you, but what are you doing for me? They’re hiking up insurance costs. They’re taking vacation days.”
The company, for its part, claimed that it had not received “a more detailed response” from the union leadership regarding its latest contract offer, and blamed said leadership for not presenting the offer to the membership for a vote. In an attempt to sow division between the rank and file and the union leadership, Case New Holland actually took out a full-page ad in The Journal Times that directly addressed striking workers and enjoined them to accept the contract terms already on the table.
Despite the company’s efforts to divide the rank and file, many on the picket line in Burlington have noted that the strike has had the opposite effect. “Up until the strike started, it might as well have been two different companies—they pit the sides against each other all the time,” said Kim Alber, a Case employee with over 9 years at the plant. “Now we all know each other, and we’re all friends and we’re all family, and I don’t think they expected us to stay as strong as we have.”
The community response has been mostly positive, with many locals expressing support for the ongoing strike. Some businesses in the Burlington city center have “Proud Union Home” signs prominently displayed in the windows, and a strike kitchen and donation center has been organized at a firehouse in the nearby town of Gulfport, just over the Mississippi River. Alber herself runs the strike kitchen.
Alber told me that, prior to the strike, many in the community weren’t aware of the issues that Case workers face on a daily basis. “I think we have a lot of people in the community that don’t or didn’t understand—they think we’re rich [because] we work at Case. There’s been a lot of stuff coming up on Facebook,” Alber said, “and after people started reading about it they were like ‘Oh my god!’”
Back on the picket line in Burlington, workers remain steadfast in their commitment to hold the line and wait for a better contract. “We’ve taken the stance—myself and the membership—[that] we’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do to not cross the picket line,” UAW 807 President Nick Guernsey said back in July. “Just to tell the company, ‘You’re going to listen to us.’”
Workers have been frustrated by the lack of movement at the negotiating table, placing the blame mostly on what they say is the company’s refusal to negotiate in good faith. “I think plant managers got involved in this at some point and said we can run without the UAW,” Guernsey said, referring to the weeks leading up to the expiration of their previous contract. According to Guernsey, the company was already bringing in scab workers more than two weeks before the contract expired. “We’re still in Madison, Wisconsin, negotiating and they’ve got replacement workers in, so their stance at the table was never really true.”
Case’s biggest competitor is John Deere, the agricultural equipment manufacturing giant whose workers struck last October at a time when the company was recording record profits. The John Deere strike saw a whopping 10,000 workers walk off the job at multiple locations across the Midwest. Workers rejected not one but two tentative agreements before ratifying a contract with significant gains in November 2021. Throughout the summer, John Deere workers have visited the picket line to stand in solidarity with Case workers and have helped raise funds to keep the strike kitchen stocked.
On top of all this, while the strike in Burlington and Racine continued, the UAW Constitutional Convention took place in Detroit in late July, where delegates voted on a number of resolutions, including a resolution to increase weekly strike pay from $400 to $500—something that Case picketers could sorely benefit from. That resolution initially passed, but was then subsequently repealed before the weekend was over.
While covering a solidarity rally for railroad workers in Galesburg, Illinois, for The Real News, I happened to run into a UAW member who had just returned from the convention. He expressed his frustration at the outcome of the strike pay vote, a sentiment that was initially echoed by workers on the Case picket line. According to strike captain and Case worker Kelsey Dameron, whom I checked in with over the phone earlier this month, that initial anger from members has been replaced with a quiet determination to see the strike through. “At first, a lot of people were upset, because that would obviously help,” she said of the failed resolution to increase strike pay. “[Now] I think this isn’t about the [strike] money we’re getting paid a week. It’s more about wanting to get our job back.”
The ongoing strike has affected the company’s ability to keep up production, and dealerships have reportedly been unwilling to move equipment built by the scab workforce. “The dominoes are falling,” Guernsey said. “Dollar amounts are getting increased daily [when it comes to] loss of production [and] loss of income. That aspect could have been avoided. Really, all of this could have been avoided with open dialogue instead of being sneaky.”
Guernsey and his membership are willing to hold out until a better contract is offered, and Guernsey has adamantly stressed that he won’t attempt to sell a bad deal to the members. “If this offer doesn’t sell itself… I’m not a salesman, I’m not selling it to my members,” he said. “I don’t feel we’re being greedy. When the company makes a statement across the table, we’re not interested in giving up anything we’ve gained.”
This message has been echoed by the rank-and-file workers out on the picket line. “This strike needs to come to an end,” Flowers said. “Get it settled and get a fair contract. It’s all we want—a fair contract. We’re not looking to be rich. We’re looking to be comfortable week to week.”
Now, halfway through their fifth month on strike, workers back in Burlington are still out on the line, ready for negotiations to continue. In recent months, parties from both sides of the bargaining table have struggled to find time to return to negotiations due to scheduling conflicts, but negotiations between Case New Holland and the UAW bargaining team are reportedly resuming this week. “There really hasn’t been much movement since the last time you came here,” Dameron said to me earlier this month, adding that workers’ spirits remain high, despite the strike dragging on. “It’s like it’s still May 2,” she said.
Nevertheless, Dameron reports that the community has continued to support the strikers and that the strike kitchen is still receiving donations. When asked if picketers were prepared to take the strike into the winter in the fight for a fair contract, Dameron responded with confidence: “It could be negative 20 degrees and we’re still gonna be out there. Every day we become stronger.”