by Dave Leshtz
Davenport, Iowa—In October the United Auto Workers and Iowa’s labor movement were on the march.
Community support and sympathetic media were solidly behind the 10,100 striking John Deere and Company employees. Workers at America’s biggest maker of agricultural machinery were justifiably insulted by Deere’s initial contract offer of a 5 percent raise following a year of record-breaking profits. They had been deemed essential workers, but apparently none were as essential as Deere’s CEO John May, who made $15.6 million in 2020—a 160 percent raise.
Dozens of businesses contributed discounted meals, drinks, haircuts, chiropractic services, fishing gear, and even a free session at Davenport Axe Throwing. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union in North Liberty donated 8,000 pounds of food. RWDSU Local 110 Vice President Bob Dixon said, “It’s about corporate greed…. people need to come together as members and as employees to fight against that.”
Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls and other Democratic legislators delivered strong statements of support, as did Iowa’s Federation of Labor, the Teamsters, the Iowa Farmers Union, and Senator Bernie Sanders. Secretary of Agriculture—and former Iowa governor—Tom Vilsack visited a picket line in Ankeny. “You deserve a fair price and a fair deal,” Vilsack told the workers. He thanked them for supporting his gubernatorial campaign in 1998: “The UAW was with me from the get-go. You don’t forget the people that were with you.”
Election Day in Iowa was also the day UAW members voted on a renegotiated contract, after overwhelmingly rejecting a tentative agreement on October 10. The second agreement between Deere and UAW leaders would give workers an immediate 10 percent raise with two additional raises of 5 percent over the course of a six-year contract. Workers would receive a bonus of $8,500 upon ratification of the contract. Deere also made some concessions on health care and retirement, but the two-tier salary system remained, with so-called “supplemental employees” paid substantially less than their coworkers doing the same jobs.
Many union members, anxious about their paychecks as the holidays approach, believe it is time to declare victory and get back to work. The majority disagree and voted down the second agreement by roughly 55 percent to 45 percent. Some say the rejection reflects a continuing dissatisfaction with their own leaders. Others blame uncertainty about the company’s Continuous Improvement Pay Plan, which is based on a complex incentive system. Many point to an overall sense that Deere management doesn’t respect them, despite their loyalty and hard work during the Covid pandemic.
Resentments hardened when Deere obtained an injunction to limit the number of picketers to four at any one time. The injunction went so far as to ban burn barrels for keeping warm at night. Tension spiked further when UAW member Richard Rich, a 56-year-old Deere warehouse inspector for 15 years, was struck and tragically killed by a car while crossing a poorly lit road near a picket line.
Public support doesn’t appear to have diminished, and Iowa unions continue to stand with the UAW. The Hawkeye Area Labor Council in Cedar Rapids, IBEW 405, and the Iowa City Federation of Labor are among those collecting and delivering household and hygiene items to strikers.
Deere management insists that the contract on the table is its “last, best, and final offer.” A Deere executive also issued a veiled threat, according to the Des Moines Register, to make up for the slack in domestic production by shifting some of the work to overseas factories. No word yet from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds or Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst—all Republicans—on how they feel about the prospect of jobs in their state being outsourced to workers in other countries.
Will Iowa’s labor movement keep moving? The two sides are said to be talking, but the outcome is hard to predict. Most of today’s strikers are young, with little knowledge of Iowa’s militant labor history to inspire them. They aren’t aware that the UAW was preceded by the Farm Equipment Workers who organized John Deere over 70 years ago. (See The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland, by Toni Gilpin).
Several UAW members I’ve recently talked with were not aware that Iowa’s Republican-led legislature nearly abolished public-sector unions in 2017 by stripping the guts out of Chapter 20, an Iowa collective bargaining law that operated efficiently and fairly—with no strikes—since the 1970s. Despite the heroic efforts of the University of Iowa’s Labor Center to educate workers, we still have many miles to go.