"This isn't just about us": The UAW view of John Deere strike

On the fourth day of Iowa’s largest strike in decades, George Clark of Podcast by George and I planned to interview some John Deere workers on the picket line in Ankeny. We learned that United Auto Workers, which represents some 10,000 Deere employees on strike, is discouraging rank and file members from speaking to the media.

However, JD Neal was authorized to talk with us outside the UAW hall in Des Moines. Neal has worked at the Deere plant in Ankeny for seventeen years and is among the leaders of the UAW Local 450.

George posted the video of our interview with Neal on YouTube.

On concerns that led to the strike

Neal said he couldn’t discuss specifics of the UAW contract. (Labor reporter Jonah Furman explained the key points of the company’s offer on pay and retirement benefits, which angered many workers.) Speaking broadly about the mood within the union,

We felt that what John Deere put out in front of us wasn’t fair. And we’re fighting to receive what’s fair—and not just for us, but for the labor movement in general.

This isn’t just about us, it’s about the Americans out there, middle-class working Americans. We’re fighting for us right now, but we’re also fighting for everybody else.

On the overwhelming vote to reject the contract

It’s hard to get 90 percent of any large group of people to agree on anything. So I wanted to hear Neal’s take on why 90 percent of UAW members voted to reject Deere’s proposed contract, in an election with more than 90 percent turnout.

I think this time it was overwhelming because as the local here, around Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, we’re showing what strength in numbers is about. So to see a 90 percent “no,” I believe that’s a strong statement saying that the working class is tired of corporate greed and the corporations padding their pockets and not paying what’s owed.

George asked how the inequities facing Deere workers factored into the decision to go on strike. The union members were deemed “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, company’s stock price tripled and the CEO’s pay increased by 160 percent from 2019 to 2020. Neal explained,

It pissed us off, 100 percent. You called me essential, we came to work every single day. And we continued to make you millions—not millions, billions of dollars.

You say you want to give us 5 to 6 percent up front? It’s a slap in the face.

How much extra work were UAW members taking on during the pandemic?

It would depend. Some people would work five-day weeks, some people would work up to seven days. And did we take on extra? Damn right we did. People were out sick. We couldn’t come to work. If we sneezed, they’d send us home.

So somebody had to pick up the slack. And that was the people that were able to be there. And we did that. So, yeah, it was something, to say the least.

On preparing for a potentially long haul

The last strike at John Deere, which started in 1986, lasted a little more than five months. Neal said the union has “no idea how long it’s going to last,” but “we’re prepared and ready to stand strong as long as it takes.”

The UAW has a strike fund that will pay each worker on strike $275 a week. The union will also cover members’ health care for the duration of the strike, since Deere has announced it’s cutting workers on strike off from company-provided health insurance later this month. UPDATE: The company reversed itself on October 22, saying it will continue to provide health care to UAW-represented employees

The union is organizing pickets around the clock, with some workers scheduled for shifts and others showing up whenever they are able during the day and night. “We voted no for a reason. We didn’t vote for a vacation.”

Do they plan to continue with round-the-clock pickets as the weather gets colder? They do, “obviously keeping safety of our members firsthand.” Neal mentioned that some people have donated propane tanks, so the UAW can set up propane heaters on the lines. (Open burn barrels are not allowed within Ankeny city limits.)

On salaried employees working on the factory floor

Deere has told some of its non-union employees to work shifts on the floor to help keep things going. Asked for his thoughts on the company assigning office employees to do jobs they’re not trained for, Neal replied, “Good luck. That’s all I can say. Good luck. That’s…good luck.”

Already on October 15, at least one Deere facility had to make a 911 call, and a non-union worker crashed a tractor inside a factory, the labor reporter Furman learned from his sources.

Furman has spoken with salaried Deere employees who are frustrated about having to do these jobs, and who feel sympathy for the union members because the company has already cut pensions for its white-collar workforce. Some have said they won’t cross the picket line.

On the community support

Neal said it was “very heartwarming” to see “overwhelming” support in the Des Moines area, and all over Iowa. People have spontaneously brought donations after hearing about the strike. Some have sent food, water, clothes, or toiletries from outside the state.

The food pantry in the union hall on NW 6th has grown, and Neal said members are encouraged to come down to pick up whatever they need. “We’ll always have a hot meal.” (The local posted on Facebook October 16 that they are in need of take-out meal containers, disposable containers with lids, and disposable foil containers for cooking.)

On news coverage of the strike

I wondered whether Neal thought anything had been missing from news reporting on the strike. He hasn’t followed it very closely, but from what he’s seen, “the media coverage has been pretty fair.”

As for what he wants the public to understand,

I would hope that people know that we’re not the greedy ones. We want a fair wage. We want to be able to retire someday, with a pension to be able to continue to pay our bills.

We want to be able to send our kids to school, help our kids pay for school.

With the work that we do, between welding, machinists, assemblers, forklift drivers, all around, it’s hard work that takes a toll on the body. And if we don’t have anything when we retire, what good are we going to be to our families and to the community that we’re going to give back to?

On two-tiered contracts

Deere has used two-tiered contracts since 1997, giving older employees a better deal than newer hires. That divide-and-conquer strategy has been successful for many corporations in getting labor unions to accept new contracts that reduce benefits or lower wage growth.

Why didn’t Deere workers go along with the latest contract proposal? “Because people are starting to understand that that benefits the company. That does not benefit the workers.”

Neal was working for Deere when the 2015 contract was negotiated. Many workers were unhappy with that deal, which barely passed by fewer than 200 votes. Neal speculated that many people who had voted yes six years ago “paid attention this time.”

Final thoughts

Was there anything we didn’t ask that Neal thought was important for people to know?

Just continue the support. Know that the people out there walking the line, we’re not the bad guys. We’re just hard-working, middle-class people that want a fair wage and a benefit package to, you know, just live our lives. We don’t want to live in mansions or buy a Lamborghini or anything like that.

How much solidarity is there within the UAW? Neal said that in the seventeen years he’s been active in the union, “this is the strongest solidarity I’ve seen yet.” Outside of the company locals, the UAW nationally and internationally has promised to support the Deere workers’ efforts. “I feel pretty confident that we’re pretty strong right now.”

Top image: Screenshot from Podcast by George video of Laura Belin interviewing J.D. Neal of the UAW Local 450 on October 17.

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  • Deere interview

    This is an oustanding interview by Laura, particularly considering how reluctant the interviewee was initially. Great stuff.