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John Deere UAW Workers go on strike for first time in 35 years

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) -- UAW John Deere members started picketing at 7 a.m. Thursday morning, after the company and union leaders were unable to agree on a new contract. 

"These are skilled, tedious jobs that UAW members take pride in every day," UAW Region 8 Director Mitchell Smith said. "Strikes are never easy on workers or their families, but John Deere workers believe they deserve a better share of the pie, a safer workplace, and adequate benefits."

More than 10,000 members at John Deere locations set up pickets. Around 3,000 Waterloo John Deere employees are rank and file members of UAW Local 838.

"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," Deere & Company Vice President of Labor Relations Brad Morris said. "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."

The union points to John Deere's success in the last year to argue the ag. giant is in a position to pay them more. While Deere was announcing layoffs in the summer of 2020, its stock price has doubled since then.

Employees told KWWL they are fighting for lower copays on health insurance, higher wages, and better retirement benefits. 

This is the first major Deere strike in thirty-five years since the last major Deere strike. Workers are emboldened to demand more this year after working long hours throughout the pandemic and because companies are facing worker shortages.

Bill Minard, who worked at Deere for 31 years and retired in 2005, said the strikes could be challenging for families. He went through several strikes in the '70s and '80s.

"It is tough on family in the marriage to not have the money," he said. "I know some of my friends got divorced. Some of them lost their houses. I was fortunate."

In 1986, workers went on strike for 163 days.

"At that time, I figured I had lost $6,000 of my savings that I accumulated up to that point," Dennis Obadal said. "It was a long hard strike we went through, but we were locked out, and we had no choice."

Minard took a job as a bank courier during the strike to keep his head above water and food on his families table.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said the Deere workers are vital participants in the community and local economy.

"This is a difficult time for many. As a child in 1986, I vividly remember my father joining his union family on the picket lines. Truth be told, there were many nights we worried about whether there would be food on the table," Hart said. "As unsettling as this situation can be, I ask that we respect the process of collective bargaining and have faith that both sides can reach a resolution smoothly."

READ MORE: Deere workers prepare for strike after rejecting contract

Deere & Company leaders said they have no estimate when the strike will end and when employees affected by the strike will be able to return to work.

The company said it had activated its Customer Service Continuation plan. As part of the plan, employees not involved in the strike will continue to work at the factories to keep 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," Deere & Company said. "By supporting our customers, the CSC Plan also protects the livelihoods of others who rely on us including employees, dealers, suppliers, and communities."

 UAW members will continue to strike around the clock until the two sides can reach an agreement.

The John Deere Waterloo Operations employee about 5,000 workers in Waterloo at 5 locations: The Deere Tractor Cab & Assembly on Donald Street, John Deere Engine Works on Ridgeway Avenue, the Drivetrain Operations, the John Deere Foundry on Westfield Avenue, and the Product Engineering Center on Cedar Heights Drive. Not all employees are Union members of the United Auto Workers Union Local 838, but all 5 locations will be affected if there is a strike. Around 3,000 Waterloo Deere employees are union rank and file of UAW local 838.

There are 2900 employees at John Deere's Dubuque Factory, or about 4.8% of Dubuque workers, making the John Deere Factor one of the largest employers for Dubuque. Just under 1500 of those are UWA members.

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