WATERLOO – A few hundred people rallying in support of striking John Deere workers didn’t need many signs to get their message across Saturday morning outside the UAW Local 838 Hall.
Their voices, cheers and occasional chants from Washington Street were heard loud and clear, and were greeted with honks from vehicles driving on the neighboring highway.
Deere workers and their families were in attendance, but also other area laborers and pro-union residents, as Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and a group of state elected officials urged those in attendance to stick together and not to give in to the agricultural machinery corporation making billions in profits.
“There’s been a resurgence in union power, and it’s what is needed at this time,” said Phillip Sanchez, a Mason City farmer and member of Teamsters Local 238. “When the unions are strong, America is strong.”
Almost all the officials referenced a personal or family connection to John Deere, the 1986 strike, or other unions.
“I talked to my dad the other day, and we talked about the 1986 strike,” said Rep. Ras Smith, who represents state House District 62. “We talked about what that meant and why almost 40 years later, we’re here again. You see all those years that dad put into the Foundry, and for some reason, only a few folks got rich.”
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Charlie Wishman, Iowa AFL-CIO president, led a chant: When he said “union,” people responded with “power.” A few others rallied the group with the question, “Are you fired up?”, and other one-liners.
The income divide between corporate management and middle class workers is getting wider and wider, they say, despite workers continuing to dedicate hours and hours to making Deere a successful company.
Those at the rally called for fair wages and benefits, workplace safety, and a good retirement plan — but most of all, they want to be treated with respect and dignity, especially for jobs many recognized as not being easy and requiring employees to work to the bone to complete.
The strike is more than a week old. Negotiators are currently at the table, confirmed Rick Moyle, executive director of the Hawkeye Area Labor Council AFL-CIO, but he could not offer any additional updates on when he thinks an agreement could be reached.
“They’re calling October, ‘Striketober.’ Nationally, there’s a major movement going on. Collective bargaining agreements are not being agreed upon, and folks are going on strike. There’s a wakening,” Moyle told the crowd. “For years and years, we have been put on our knees and made to beg for everything that we get. While they take it all, we get little.
“Your fight here, your strike — when you voted 10,000 strong to go out the door and do what was right to protect future generations of John Deere workers and UAW workers — it wasn’t just for them. It was for the entire movement. It was for every working family, not only in the state of Iowa, but in the United States.”
State Rep. Bob Kressig, a retired UAW John Deere worker who represents House District 59, took part in the 1986 strike and related that experience to what is happening in 2021.
“We haven’t been out here that long. Our strike was almost six months, and it created situations of struggle for people,” he said. “I had some young kids then, a house, and bills. How are you going to meet all those needs?”
One difference, he noted, was the the division within the community at the time, and not having the “broad support” that there is today.
Hart has relatives who worked at Deere, including his dad. Despite having touches of memory lapses, he said his father remembers the strike of 1986.
“He remembers it vividly because it has made an impression on his life that much,” Hart said. “I remember my mom taking extra shifts at work so that we could have food. When times were tough, we had to stick together. … They understand that if you don’t stand for something, then you will fall for anything.”
State Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, representing Iowa House District 61, grew up in a union home and remembers her dad casting votes on collective bargaining agreements.
“It takes a lot of guts to say we’re done, we’re not going to do this anymore, we’re going to get what we deserve” she said. “You’re at the top of history right now. Everybody is following you.”
She takes care of her dad in Des Moines, and recalled an emotional moment with him.
“He has a lot of things going on, and he can’t talk, but I showed him a picture of the union guys that were in Ankeny, and he said: ‘Let’s go.’ And we went. We were on the picket line in Des Moines/Ankeny, for an hour, and he walked that picket line.”
State Sen. Bill Dotzler, representing Iowa Senate District 31, is another UAW Local 838 retiree who worked at Deere and was part of the strike in 1986.
“It’s not about Republicans. It’s not about independents. It’s not about Democrats,” he said. “It’s about sticking together as a team to win.”
Jesse Case, Teamsters 238 secretary treasurer and principal officer, also urged those in attendance to call the office of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and ask him to vote for the PRO Act, “a bill in Congress that would make it illegal for companies like Deere to permanently replace strikers.”
“We got a message to Deere. Deere thinks they are fighting the UAW and Waterloo,” he said. “They are not just fighting the UAW and Waterloo. They are fighting the Iowa labor movement. And if they think they can break the Iowa labor movement, they can kiss my ass.”
After the rally, people drove to picket sites near the Deere facility at 300 W. Commercial St. to demonstrate.