MOLINE, Ill. — More than 10,000 Deer & Co workers went on strike Thursday, the first major walkout at the agricultural machinery giant in more than three decades.
The union had said its members would quit if no agreement was reached on Wednesday. The vast majority of unions rejected a contract offer earlier this week that would have increased some workers by 5% and the Illinois company known for its green tractors by 6%.
“Nearly one million UAW retired and active members stand in solidarity with the striking UAW members at John Deere,” said UAW President Ray Curry.
Brad Morris, Deere’s vice president of labor relations, said the company is “committed to a favorable outcome for our employees, our communities and everyone involved.” He said that Deere wants a settlement which will improve the financial condition of all the employees.
“We will continue to work day and night to understand the priorities of our employees and resolve this strike, as well as keep our operations running for the benefit of everyone we serve,” Morris said.
Thirty-five years have passed since the last major Deere strike, but workers were encouraged to demand more this year after working long hours throughout the pandemic and because companies are facing labor shortages.
“At John Deere, our members strike for their ability to lead a decent living, retire with honors, and establish fair work rules,” said Chuck Browning, vice president and director of UAW’s Department of Agriculture Implementation. “We remain committed to bargaining until our members’ goals are achieved.”
About 15 minutes after the strike deadline, a handful of workers began forming a picket line outside the company’s plant in Milan, a city in western Illinois, near the Iowa border.
The Quad-City Times reported that the union dropped a metal barrel and firewood to keep workers warm in preparation for a demonstration that is expected to continue 24 hours a day. Workers began picketing at several other Deere plants — including its larger operation in Waterloo, Iowa — on Thursday morning when the first shift would normally return.
Chris Lawerson, who worked as a painter in Deere, told the Des Moines Register before the strike that it could make a significant difference.
“The whole country is going to see us,” Lauerson told the newspaper. “If we take a stand here for ourselves, for our families, for basic human prosperity, it will make a difference for the entire manufacturing industry. Don’t be. Let’s not be intimidated.”
Under the agreement, which the workers rejected, a top-scale Deere production worker would earn just over $30 an hour, increasing to $31.84 after five years, according to the proposal’s summary.
Economist Ernie Goss of Creighton University said workers still have too much leverage to bargain with because of the labor shortage.
“Across America right now, labor is in a pretty strong position to bargain, so now is a good time to strike,” Goss said.
Earlier this year, another group of UAW-represented workers went on strike at a Volvo Trucks plant in Virginia and was injured after rejecting three temporary contract offers with better pay and lower-cost health benefits.
The contracts under negotiation include 14 Deere plants, including seven in Iowa, four in Illinois, and one each in Kansas, Colorado and Georgia.
Contract talks were unfolding at Moline, an Illinois-based company as Deere expects to report record profits of between $5.7 billion and $5.9 billion this year. The company is reporting strong sales of its agricultural and construction equipment this year.
Those benefits give Deere the means to get along with workers, said Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson.
“They can afford to settle this thing on more agreed-upon terms and still maintain really strong profitability,” Swenson said.
Deere production plants are important contributors to the economy, so local officials expect any strike to be short-lived as it will have an immediate effect when striking workers cut their spending.
“We certainly want to see our economy stabilize and grow after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moline Mayor Sangeeta Rayapati told the Quad-City Times. “Hopefully, these parties can come to a resolution soon.”
Swenson said the strike could spread further if the companies supplying Deere factories had to start laying off workers. Hence Deere will face pressure from suppliers and customers who need spares for their Deere equipment to settle the strike quickly. And Svensson said Deere would be concerned about losing market share if farmers decide to buy from other companies this fall.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Deere to move closer to the union’s demands,” Svensson said.