Iowa Democrats back Deere workers, Republicans mostly silent

Prominent Iowa Democrats were quick to express solidarity with United Auto Workers members who went on strike at midnight on October 14. But Republican officials were mostly silent as Iowa’s largest strike in decades began.

The work stoppage affects some 10,000 UAW members, of whom about 6,500 are employed at John Deere facilities in Waterloo, Ankeny, Davenport, Dubuque, and Ottumwa. Earlier this week, about 90 percent of UAW members voted to reject the company’s contract offer—a remarkable consensus, given that more than 90 percent of workers participated in the vote. Although Deere’s profits have increased by 61 percent in recent years, and CEO John May’s salary increased by about 160 percent from 2019 to 2020, the company offered workers only a 5 percent to 6 percent raise, with additional 3 percent raises in 2023 and 2025. Proposed changes to pensions also weren’t acceptable to most workers.

The last strike at John Deere plants began in 1986 and lasted for about five months. According to the Des Moines Register, the largest strikes anywhere in Iowa during the past three decades were a 1995 stoppage at Amana Refrigeration in Cedar Rapids, which involved about 2,000 workers, and a 2004 strike at Newton-based Maytag, involving about 1,600 workers.

The Iowa Democratic Party issued a statement supporting the Deere workers a few minutes after midnight, and many well-known Democrats added their voices throughout the day. I’ve enclosed many of those comments below.

Meanwhile, Governor Kim Reynolds, Senator Joni Ernst, and U.S. Representatives Ashley Hinson (IA-01), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) said nothing about the event directly affecting thousands of their constituents. Staff for Reynolds, Hinson, and Miller-Meeks did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries.

Although former President Donald Trump and some strategists have tried to “rebrand” the GOP as the party for working people, Iowa Republicans have traditionally aligned with business lobby interests and opposed pro-labor policies. In addition, large unions like the UAW have endorsed Democratic candidates in many races. So it’s not surprising GOP politicians would hesitate to show any solidarity for UAW members on strike.

On the other hand, speaking out for the management position would be risky. Hinson and Miller-Meeks are first-term members of Congress and could face tough re-election campaigns, depending on how their districts are redrawn on Iowa’s next political map. They don’t need to alienate thousands of families, especially considering the lopsided votes to reject Deere’s contract offer.

The only prominent Iowa Republican to make any public comments about the strike on Thursday was Senator Chuck Grassley, and that wasn’t intentional. The senator didn’t release any statement about what was happening at Deere and told reporters late in the afternoon he “didn’t even know they were on strike, except you told me.” (The strike was a top news story throughout the day and a hot topic on social media.)

Grassley said, “Well, obviously, they’re exercising their right to do that, of collective bargaining,” adding that he didn’t know the issues at stake but “that’s a decision those workers made, and, under the laws, we have to respect it.” He also noted that Deere employees “don’t go on strike very often so there must be a great deal of (dissatisfaction) between management and the unions there and the workers there.”

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that Federal Election Commission records show the John Deere PAC gave $5,000 each to the campaign committees of Hinson, Miller-Meeks, Feenstra, and Grassley earlier this year. To be clear, I wouldn’t expect any Republican to express full-throated support for workers on strike. But you would think they would at least acknowledge a huge news story that impacts Iowans and the agriculture sector, even if just with a generic statement saying they hope both sides can agree on a new contract soon.

LATER UPDATE: Grassley’s staff later told some reporters the senator “believes it is ‘inappropriate’ for politicians to get involved in contract negotiations and doesn’t plan to contact either John Deere or the striking workers.” The office provided the following statement:

I know what it’s like to go on strike as a member of the International Machinists when I worked at Waterloo Register. I hope this doesn’t become too politicized. The rights of the workers are protected by law and I expect good faith bargaining by both parties. I hope all involved are able to come to a swift resolution.

Reynolds mentioned the strike at a Republican fundraiser on October 15, WQAD-TV reported.

“Hopefully, (John Deere will) work through the process and get the employees back to work sooner rather than later,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds didn’t point any fingers at who’s to blame in the Deere contract disagreements.

“I think (John Deere is) a great company that supports and appreciates its employees,” Reynolds said. “And this is a process they go through.”

Miller-Meeks finally tweeted about the strike on October 17.

However, Miller-Meeks’ Congressional newsletter, which comes out on Sundays, did not acknowledge what is happening at Deere.

Hinson’s spokesperson told Channel 5 news on October 15 that she “is monitoring the situation.” As of October 17, Hinson hasn’t publicly commented on the strike. Neither has Ernst, who is also monitoring the situation, according to her staff.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, who represents Ankeny, sent the following statement to Channel 5.

John Deere and its workforce are valuable members of the Ankeny community and important aspects of the Iowa economy. I am confident both parties can find a mutually beneficial labor contract to continue to provide world class products to help Iowa farmers feed and fuel the world.

Appendix: Roundup of Iowa Democratic comments on the John Deere strike

Statement from Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn, issued shortly after midnight on October 14:

I stand in solidarity with the workers at John Deere factories around Iowa as they fight for a fair contract.  My father was a proud UAW member and took part in one of the longest strikes in the Quad Cities in 1979. I know firsthand the frustration and anger that working families experience when they see the company drawing in record profits and the CEO getting a major pay raise while they’re told to be grateful for the crumbs.  The workers who keep John Deere running day in and day out deserve to share in the financial success of the company and that includes good benefits, a secure retirement and wages you can raise a family on.

Relevant portion of statement from Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls:

This morning I was proud to join UAW workers on the picket line in Ankeny. I stand in solidarity with the UAW workers striking for a fair contract from Deere. Iowans deserve pay and benefits that reflect their hard work. Every hard-working Iowan deserves a good paying job, a middle-class life, and a secure retirement.

Working people built America into the greatest nation on Earth and are the backbone of this country. We should reward work, not wealth.

Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst’s remarks during an October 14 media availability:

I want to support and stand with the workers who are struggling right now. You know these people, as Chairman Wilburn said, making the decision to go on strike isn’t easy, and what they’re doing is they’re standing up, not just for themselves, but for future workers at Deere, and for all workers who are tired of seeing people at the top making all the money, while they do the work to make people at the top richer. That is not fair, and Iowa workers are tired of it.

They’re tired of seeing CEO increases at 160 percent of their salary while they have to fight for 12 percent raises over five years. They’re tired of seeing CEOs and shareholders making all the money and the people who help them make that money not being respected on the factory floor, or in the boardroom when it comes time to negotiate a contract. These workers are standing up for themselves and for all Iowa workers who deserve a voice in their own future. I am proud to stand with these workers today.

U.S. Senate candidate Abby Finkenauer, who used to represent the Waterloo and Dubuque areas in Congress, posted several tweets about the strike. Here’s one:

U.S. Senate candidate Glenn Hurst said in a news release,

Today’s strike is simple. Once again, our Unions are fighting on behalf of all Americans. Their pay and benefits should reflect the continued success of our workers, but today the gap between workers and those at the top is widening.

UAW workers showed up as essential workers during the COVID pandemic, facing the uncertainty of these times to ensure others had access to basic needs. I stand with the UAW and hope for a swift and fair contract that provides a decent wage to support their families, protects their benefits, allows them to work under safe and fair rules on the job, and recognizes their contribution to John Deere’s success.

Tweet posted by U.S. Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03), whose district includes Deere’s Ankeny facility:

Tweet posted by State Auditor Rob Sand:

Tweet posted by State Senator Liz Mathis, a Congressional candidate in IA-01:

State Representative Christina Bohannan, a Congressional candidate in IA-02, said in a news release,

I stand in support of the hard-working men and women at John Deere facilities across Iowa as they fight for the fair wages, health care, and retirement they deserve. As a proud member of a union family, I’ve seen firsthand how skilled and tough workers are and I strongly believe their work must be respected. UAW members at John Deere factories worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic as essential workers and are a critical part of Iowa’s agricultural and manufacturing economy. Iowa workers who power our economy deserve a fair wage and the opportunity to earn a comfortable retirement and I’m in solidarity with UAW as they stand on the picket line to secure the benefits they’ve earned.

State Representative Ras Smith, who is also a candidate for governor, expressed his support in a series of tweets as well as an email to supporters. From his Twitter thread:

Today, I stand in solidarity with my @UAW brothers and sisters as they go on strike, including many members of our Waterloo community who work for Local 838

For a company making record profits and increasing CEO pay, the contract John Deere has proposed is inexcusable. Every worker deserves a fair wage, health care and a retirement they can rely on.

My father understood this when, as a member of UAW Local 838, he went on strike in 1986. Our family depended on his wage and benefits to survive, and he was willing to do what it took to protect that, even if it was tough during the strike

he balance of power between worker and employer has shifted greatly since 1986. Unions have been weakened and corporate profits have skyrocketed. This has been a very intentional shift and has had a negative impact on our state.

It’s time for working people to reclaim power. This strike is a big deal, not only for my community and Iowa, but nationally. And I’m proud of the @UAW workers for making a stand for what’s right.

UPDATE: U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken tweeted,

LATER UPDATE: Republican State Representative Mike Bousselot, whose Iowa House district covers part of Ankeny, tweeted a statement on October 19.

My mom & dad both worked for John Deere before retiring. My dad for 42 years. Green paint (& yellow paint) put food on the table for our family. I know the uncertainty being faced by these working families on both sides.

Thousands of Iowans have a similar story & John Deere has been a great Iowa employer. Labor has helped Deere flourish and I believe labor deserves quality working conditions & quality pay.

The UAW is using its rights to bring their issues to Deere & I support that process & believe an equitable & sustainable resolution will be found.

Top image: Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls (left) joins a United Auto Workers picket line in Ankeny on October 14. Photo originally posted on Wahls’ Twitter feed.

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  • Ag year

    Not hard to understand labor truculence when workers see the 18-25 percent increase in farmland values and the expected (by USDA) 30-40 percent increase in farm income this year due to higher commodity prices. Add Deere’s expenditure of $1.7 billion through the first nine months of 2021 to buy back its own stock and it’s not hard to see why the workers and their negotiators have developed an attitude. Winter is when farmers think about and buy new machinery or upgrade their present equipment. It will be interesting to see how long Deere will want to remain on the sidelines.