Inspired by the Deere & Co. walkout last fall, Rep. Cindy Axne introduced a bill Wednesday that would require businesses to provide health insurance for striking workers.
Axne, D-Iowa, said she began working on the legislation after she met striking United Auto Workers members outside of the company’s Ankeny plant in October. In the early days of the strike, some union members worried that Deere executives would cut off their health insurance, a tactic General Motors briefly employed during a UAW strike against the automaker in 2019.
Deere, which continued to provide workers health insurance during the five-week strike, declined to comment on the legislation. If the bill becomes law, Axne said, she believes more workers will feel comfortable going on strike.
“We’re going to see workers do what the John Deere folks did, which is stand up and push back for everything that’s necessary to have a successful career,” she said.
Under the proposal, which has the backing of several unions, the National Labor Relations Board could fine a company $50,000 for taking away health insurance. The NLRB could double that fine if a company breaks the law twice within five years.
While Deere continued to provide health insurance last fall, Kellogg Co. dropped its coverage for Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union members who went on strike in October. A spokesperson for Kellogg didn’t return a message seeking comment this week.
Rob Down, the business agent at BCTWGMI Local 50 in Omaha, Nebraska, said the unions’ 1,500 members had to pay $2,800 a month to retain health insurance through a government plan during the strike.
Down said some members felt they had to pay the high rate because they couldn’t put off medical needs. One worker’s daughter underwent open-heart surgery during the strike, he said.
In other cases, workers got by with donations from community members and hoped a medical emergency didn’t arise.
“Some people gambled,” Down said.
The Deere strike was the largest work stoppage in the country last year, with about 10,100 UAW members picketing. The strike also was Iowa’s largest on record since at least 1993, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. About 7,000 Iowa workers were on strike at Deere’s Iowa plants in Ankeny, Davenport, Dubuque, Ottumwa and Waterloo.
By holding out for five weeks and rejecting two contract proposals from the UAW and Deere, the members won a doubling of promised wage increases to about 10%. The company also increased pension payments for future retirees and preserved the pension for new hires, a benefit management proposed to cut in its initial offer.
The strike unfolded at a time of significant popularity for organized labor. About 68% of Americans held positive views of labor unions as of last August, according to Gallup. That is the highest rate since 1965 and significantly higher than where public opinion stood in 2009, when 48% of Americans approved of unions. About 58% of respondents to a November Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll said they mainly sided with the strikers.
At the same time, union membership remains low. Nationally, about 10% of workers were in unions in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from about 20% in 1983.
Axne said Wednesday that more union participation would raise the quality of life for many workers, including those who are not at union companies. The week after the UAW ended its strike of Deere in November, the agricultural and construction equipment manufacturer raised wages for non-union employees 8%.
“I hope that we see more labor bills come to the floor,” Axne said. “They enhance not only the lives of folks who are in unions but just working people’s daily lives in general.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential lobbying group that often opposes pro-union bills, did not respond to the Des Moines Register’s request for comment on Axne’s proposal this week. Axne said she had not heard from the chamber on her proposal.
Her legislation has seven Democratic co-sponsors but no Republican support. She said she had not yet reached out to members of the opposing party.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Cindy Axne bill would maintain health insurance for striking workers