SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
John Deere is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural and construction equipment. The company’s slogan is that nothing works like a Deere, except right now very little is working at their Midwestern factories, where production is on hold because workers are on strike. Grant Gerlock of Iowa Public Radio reports that the strike comes as unions see themselves in a stronger bargaining position.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: Workers at the John Deere plant in Ankeny, Iowa, are off the production floor and on the picket line. A dozen union members and supporters walk the crosswalk on one of the main roads leading to the factory. They carry signs indicating the UAW on strike. Some wave to cars racing down the street for supportive horns.
NORA THOMAS: Hi. I have a few drinks. You want some ?
GERLOCK: Supporters like Nora Thomas stop to share food and drink with people on the picket line. She remembers the people who helped her parents when her father was on strike at a factory in Maytag.
THOMAS: They struggled quite a bit. We would have – stop at Union Hall to eat, that sort of thing. And I just wanted to help pay off.
GERLOCK: This scene in Ankeny, where John Deere makes agricultural sprayers that can sell for $ 400,000, also plays out at the Waterloo Tractor Plant and the Bulldozer Plant in Dubuque. In total, more than 10,000 union members are on strike in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas. The union has asked workers not to give interviews, but they recently sent a clear message when 90% voted against Deere’s latest contract. The deal would have increased wages by at least 5%, with lower-paying positions like painters earning around $ 20 an hour, but it would have placed new hires in a less generous retirement system. Deere is set to make record profits of nearly $ 6 billion in 2021. And workers say they expect a greater share of the company’s success.
MICHAEL LEROY: What’s happening is that unions are relevant again.
GERLOCK: It’s Michael LeRoy, who teaches labor relations at the University of Illinois.
LEROY: It’s a reverse dynamic of what happened in the 1980s, when the power dynamic quickly shifted against unions and workers. Now this is moving rapidly in their favor.
GERLOCK: LeRoy says big strikes are rare these days at manufacturers like Deere, which for decades have outsourced jobs. But that strategy failed when the United States imposed new tariffs on Chinese products and the supply chain collapsed.
LEROY: It worked when labor markets favored employers. Now it doesn’t work.
GERLOCK: Instead, says LeRoy, the unions push back. In a statement, John Deere said the company is committed to a deal with the UAW that will provide workers with the best wages in the industry. It also indicates that non-unionized employees will maintain some production. Alex Colvin of Cornell University says companies often hire replacement workers. But because jobs are now so hard to fill, strikes can be more effective.
ALEX COLVIN: And I think that’s why you see some of these bigger ones, both John Deere – you’ve seen Kellogg’s multi-locations – and potentially, you know, 60,000 entertainment workers across the country. . These are quite difficult units to replace.
GERLOCK: Economists say the pressure is on John Deere to end the strike quickly. The company must keep production lines moving while farmers have the cash to pay for new equipment and major infrastructure projects are considered in Congress. For NPR News, I’m Grant Gerlock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.