In what is already the biggest private-sector labor strike in over two years, over 10,000 hourly John Deere workers who are part of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union can be seen picketing outside 14 of their manufacturing sites. The strike comes at a critical time for farmers who are now harvesting and searching for parts of their agricultural machinery and technology.
Scott Bohnert, who farms just outside Moline, Illinois, said that both the strike and supply chain problems are making it difficult for farmers to find parts for broken farming equipment. He experienced it firsthand when his combine broke down.
Bohnert said he would typically drive to Milan, which is nearby, to pick up the part. But the part he needed wasn't available there because of the supply issues.
He finally found it at an after-market parts company 10 miles from the farm. But citing the John Deere strike in Milan, the company wouldn't allow Bohnert to pick it up. Instead, the parts company told Bohnert he would have to ship the part by freight, which would take days and add more costs. In the end, Bohnert had to drive seven hours round-trip to pick up the part from a John Deere dealer in Indiana.
Despite the ongoing strike, the company says that it remains committed to keep the operations going. Salaried employees are being recruited to backfill vacancies on production floors.
"John Deere is committed to a favorable outcome for everyone involved and is committed to reaching an agreement with UAW," a spokesperson for the company said. "Our immediate concern is meeting the needs of our customers, who work in time-sensitive and critical industries, such as agriculture and construction, and also to protect the livelihoods of others who rely on us, including employees, dealers, suppliers and communities." (Related: Farmers hit hard as supply chain crisis causes massive shortage in machinery and parts.)
The strike started after UAW workers rejected an offer that would have given them five to six percent wage hikes. However, one worker said that the disagreement with the corporation is not fueled simply by wages.
While wage issues are on the list, there are other concerns that workers are picketing for, including health insurance and profit-sharing. The supply chain issues have also created irregular hours and schedules at the plants, adding to the frustrations of some hourly workers.
The consensus is that the strike could last until the end of the year, as a settlement may not be reached between John Deere and UAW before the holidays. Neither of the parties commented on the timeline of the talks, or if a deadline has been set to resolve the labor disagreement.
Paul Iversen, a labor educator at the University of Iowa's Labor Center said that the strike reflects a trend of workers who are now reevaluating their relationship with work and what they're willing to work for. The pandemic contributed to workers looking to get more out of their jobs, as many continued to go to work in hazardous conditions throughout 2020.
"And they did that, and they produced, and the company's making huge sums of money, and they're just saying, 'You’ve got to give me the dignity and the respect to give us a share,'" Iversen shared.
In the meantime, those on strike are going without pay, and local restaurants are supplying their food. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts voiced her support for the workers on strike, saying that they have gotten the short end of the stick for decades.
The last time UAW had a strike against John Deere was in 1986, which lasted 163 days.
As the workers at John Deere plants continue to strike, Iowa City union representatives said their unions were in full support of the striking workers.
Jesse Case, the secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 238 in Cedar Rapids, said that they have been standing on the picket line with John Deere workers over the past days in Waterloo and elsewhere.
"When members of one union get attacked, it’s an attack on all workers," Case said. "That's why we stand in solidarity with other unions that are being attacked by these global companies that are making record profits."
Meanwhile, members of the United Steelworkers Local 105 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 25 have given donations to the striking workers and joined the picket line in Davenport in the last few days.
Steve Nienhaus, business representative of the North Central States Region Council of Carpenters in Iowa City, said the carpenter's union supports the measures the John Deere workers are taking to improve work conditions.
"We're in favor of guys getting what they can get," he said. "The last resort is to go on strike, but if they have to go on strike, they did it for a reason."
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