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UAW and Deere back at negotiating table in last-ditch effort to avert strike

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WATERLOO — Union leaders were in last-minute contract negotiations with Deere and Co. Wednesday afternoon as workers were hours away from a strike.

More than 10,000 workers were set to walk off the job at 11:59 Wednesday unless a deal was struck, after the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union rejected the company’s latest offer on Sunday.

Brian Rothenberg, a UAW spokesperson, told the Quad-City Times negotiators from both sides had resumed talks Wednesday in an effort to avert a strike.

But on Wednesday, Waterloo’s UAW Local 838 pinned the following post on its Facebook page: “ATTENTION MEMBERS: Be prepared for your strike duties,” followed by a list of union contacts at each of Waterloo and Cedar Falls John Deere facilities.

Those locations include John Deere Waterloo Works—Tractor, Cab and Assembly Operations, which manufactures the 6R, 7R, 8R and 8RT and 9R and 9RT Series tractors; John Deere Waterloo Works—Drivetrain Operations, which does transmissions, drives and axle machining and assembly; John Deere Waterloo Works—Foundry Operations; John Deere Waterloo Works—Service Parts Operations; Power Systems and Engine Works.

A strike would affect workers in Illinois, Iowa and Kansas. Each Deere plant covered by the contract is organizing its own strike outside of its respective buildings, most of which will begin striking at 6 a.m. Thursday. In Waterloo, the strike would commence at 7 a.m. Thursday. Once a strike is started at a plant, it will continue for 24 hours a day, seven days a week until an agreement is reached, union leaders have said.

Deere employees have already started preparing for the strike, according to one Quad-Cities union worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because of the fear of retribution. Sign materials have been obtained by local union offices and workers on later shifts at the Milan plant were told not to report for work.

Union members say Deere this week began training salaried workers to fill in for some hourly workers who’d be affected by a strike.

In its heyday, the John Deere Company was the largest employer in Waterloo, and second only to Rath Packing Company in terms of its manufacturing prowess and impact on the local economy.

Northeast Iowa native John Froelich invented the first practical gasoline-powered tractor in 1892, and he and a group of investors from Waterloo formed the Waterloo Gasoline and Traction Engine Company in 1893 to produce and market it.

The company built a total of four tractors, but two of those were returned by “unhappy customers,” according to a history of the company. The company then reorganized as the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in 1895 and pivoted to focus on building gasoline engines for things like powering grain elevators, and Froelich left the company.

In 1902, the company merged with the Davis Engine Company to become Waterloo Tractor Works and tried to become a manufacturer of stationary engines and automobiles. When that didn’t work, the merger ended, and the company then focused on the development of stationary gasoline engines including the “Waterloo Boy,” first produced in 1904.

By 1910, the company used the Waterloo Boy to power a practical tractor, and averaged 46 orders a day for it. They employed 700 workers in 1915, becoming Waterloo’s leading employer, according to a 2002 history of downtown Waterloo submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.

More tractor models were introduced, including the Model L-A in 1913, the Model R in 1914 and the Model N, and by 1918 the company had sold more than 10,000 Model R and N tractors, and decided to abandon stationary engines to focus solely on building tractors.

In March of that year, Deere and Company in Moline, looking to add tractor manufacturing to their line of farm implements, bought the company for $2.35 million. Tractors continued to be sold under the Waterloo Boy name until 1923, when the John Deere Model D was introduced.

An agricultural depression after World War I dropped sales volume for the company, though its Model D “proved successful” and led to a growth in manufacturing jobs in Waterloo: By 1927 there were 1,150 Deere workers in Waterloo, growing to 4,852 in 1941 and 6,387 by 1947.

John Deere tallied 69,600 employees worldwide as of 2020.

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