WATERLOO — Deere & Co. workers are officially on strike for the first time in more than three decades. But the mood was downright jovial at the entrances to John Deere plants across Waterloo on Thursday.
UAW Local 838 picketers — who represent around 3,189 of the 10,100 total striking Deere workers across the country, according to the union — were hearing lots of honks of encouragement from passing vehicles. At times throughout the day, cars would stop to drop off coffee, cookies, doughnuts and even pizza as the strike began in earnest.
Picketers were assigned to entrances in groups of six for four-hour shifts, they said, but often Thursday there were far more at the entrances — many of them workers as well as family members.
A Waterloo Police Department officer stopped to chat with picketers for several minutes at Tractor Cab Assembly Operations on East Donald Street, while Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson stopped by the Foundry, picketers said. Security personnel for Deere were also present at some entrances, making sure picketers kept to city-owned rights-of-way and off Deere property.
City-approved burn barrels kept picketers warm in the early morning hours, as temperatures slowly rose from the mid-40s to the low 60s on a cloudless day. At some locations, like Engine Works on West Ridgeway Avenue, port-a-potties were set up.
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Deere has been in Waterloo for a century. Its properties 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 — Drive Train Operations, which handles 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.
John Deere tallied 69,600 employees worldwide as of 2020, according to the company.
In Waterloo, an estimated 1,500 work at Tractor Cab Assembly Operations, and around the same amount work at Drive Train Operations. Foundry workers believe their numbers tally more than 400, while another 300-400 work at Engine Works and around 150 work at Service Parts Operation.
The UAW Hall on East Mitchell Avenue was busy Thursday, with picketers showing up for shifts. The hall advertised financial support, including food and rent assistance and help with budgeting, on a sign in the entryway.
Tim Frickson, president of Local 838, routed all questions about the strike to the UAW Region 4 district office. A spokesperson there said he could not comment on the record, noting the strike is an ongoing legal matter, and wasn’t sure if negotiators were back at the bargaining table Thursday.
“Our members at John Deere strike for the ability to earn a decent living, retire with dignity and establish fair work rules,” UAW Vice President Chuck Browning said in a release. “We stay committed to bargaining until our members’ goals are achieved.”
Some local legislators weighed in on the strike on social media.
“Today, I stand in solidarity with my UAW brothers and sisters as they go on strike, including many members of our Waterloo community,” said Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat who represents Iowa House District 62. “For a company making record profits and increasing CEO pay, the contract John Deere has proposed is inexcusable.”
Smith said his father went on the last strike, in 1986, but added the “balance of power between worker and employer has shifted greatly” since then.
“It’s time for working people to reclaim power,” Smith said. “This strike is a big deal, not only for my community and Iowa, but nationally.”
Waterloo city Councilor Jonathan Grieder said he also stood “in solidarity” with strikers.
“Every worker deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and fairly compensated,” Grieder said. “That’s what UAW is fighting for right now.”
Around midnight, UAW Local 838 posted on its Facebook page that members should “report to strike duty at 7 a.m. tomorrow.”
The strike began at midnight, when union representatives did not come to a tentative agreement with Deere by the hard strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.
Workers spent Wednesday making picket signs and bracing for the first major strike by Deere workers since 1986. The strike affects factories in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.
The UAW union rejected the company’s latest offer Sunday, with about 90% of the members turning down the contract. The six-year offer from Deere would have raised wages by 20% over the life of the contract. The deal also increased some benefits.
Under the agreement the workers rejected, a top scale Deere production worker would make just over $30 per hour, rising to $31.84 after five years, according to summary of the proposal.
The contract talks at the Moline, Illinois-based company were unfolding as Deere is expecting to report record profits of around $4 billion this year. The company has been reporting strong sales of its agricultural and construction equipment this year.
The company has offered competitive wages and benefits for all employees, said one Deere executive with knowledge of the negotiations. Every position and employee is unique, the executive said, and Deere is committed to working with the UAW to reach a tentative agreement.
But workers say the company hasn’t gone far enough, especially while Deere enjoys record profits. Union members have also said they’ve had mandatory overtime, an increasing workload and unsupportive managers.
Once a strike has 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. The last UAW strike against Deere lasted 163 days.
In a statement early Thursday morning, Brad Morris, vice president of labor relations for Deere & Company, said “Deere & Company does not currently have an estimate of when employees affected by the strike will resume activities or the timing for completion of negotiations with the UAW.”
In its latest offer, Deere bargained for incremental wage increases over six years, equal to about a $1.20 raise in hourly pay at the end of the six-year contract, according to employees. For the 2020 fiscal year, Deere & Co. net income totaled $2.751 billion, according to the company.
Strike pay will be available for Deere employees. According to the UAW, weekly strike pay is $275 per week, or $55 per day, beginning on the eighth day. A bonus check is paid the week prior to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Meanwhile, Deere is reassigning some duties for salaried employees not involved in the strike. In a posting on one.deere.com, the company’s communication channel, Deere officials said, “In response to news of the UAW’s strike, we have activated our Customer Service Continuation (CSC) Plan. As part of John Deere’s CSC plan, employees and others will be entering our factories daily to keep our operations running. Our immediate concern is meeting the needs of our customers, who work in time-sensitive and critical industries such as agriculture and construction. By supporting our customers, the CSC Plan also protects the livelihoods of others who rely on us, including employees, dealers, suppliers, and communities.”
In his statement, Morris said, “John Deere is committed to a favorable outcome for our employees, our communities, and everyone involved. We are determined to reach an agreement with the UAW that would put every employee in a better economic position and continue to make them the highest paid employees in the agriculture and construction industries.
“We will keep working day and night to understand our employees’ priorities and resolve this strike, while also keeping our operations running for the benefit of all those we serve.”
Quad-City Times reporters Cara Smith and Thomas Geyer and The Associated Press contributed to this article.