On the John Deere Picket Line in Iowa With UAW Local 281

On the John Deere Picket Line in Iowa With UAW Local 281

On the John Deere Picket Line in Iowa With UAW Local 281

With $1.6 billion in profits just in the third quarter of this year, the company has ample time and money to squeeze striking workers—unless national unions step up their support.


Davenport, Iowa—On day four of their strike, 50 John Deere and Company members of UAW Local 281 stood across a county road in front of the John Deere Plant Works near Highway 61 here on the northern edge of Davenport. They were upbeat but realistic.

Only the oldest of the old-timers recalled the brutal strike of 1986, which lasted nearly half a year. Most of the workers today are in their 30s and 40s, confident that the honking cars are proof of community support. Local restaurants are delivering food and drinks to the line and giving discounts to union members. A huge pile of firewood is stacked and ready for all-night picketing shifts as the autumn nights grow chillier. Supporters from all over the state are showing up in solidarity with the 10,000 workers at this plant—and those in Waterloo, Ottumwa, Dubuque, Moline, and Ankeny.

Picketers I talked with represented all parts of the workforce, from welders to assemblers to heavy equipment mechanics. Ken’s assigned strike shift wasn’t until 6 am the next day, but he decided to take an extra shift, wearing a faded T-shirt: “Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms… but who’s bringing the chips?” Jake’s shirt simply said, “Now’s our time!” A labor lawyer from Mt. Vernon, 60 miles to the west, sported a button: “I don’t give a damn about your policy. Show me the contract language.” A big, bearded guy named Nolan repeatedly thanked visitors to the line for their support: “It means a lot to us.”

Ivory, a member of the local’s executive council for nine years, told me that the strike is projected to cost the company $30 million a day; the cost to local businesses was estimated at $4 million per strike day. The fact that 90 percent of the local’s members voted to reject a tentative contract gives her confidence that they’re prepared for the long haul.

And it could be a very long haul. The company plans to discontinue health insurance within a matter of days if the strike hasn’t ended. In August, Deere announced $1.6 billion in profits for the third quarter of this year, allowing it ample time and money to squeeze and outlast the workers. Community donations and the UAW strike fund of $275 a week will only go so far. National unions need to step up their support—it’s their fight, too.

In Iowa’s political landscape, the strike’s ramifications go far beyond John Deere. Democrats are in their weakest position in decades as Republicans rule all three branches of state government and Trump’s popularity shows no signs of diminishing. In 2020 Trump beat President Biden by 8.2 percentage points, winning all but six of 99 counties. Labor is still a player in the state, but isn’t a loud voice in the Iowa Democratic Party. UAW members and their fellow workers are bold and brave and energized. Will they also energize Iowa voters?

So far so good. As Bob Dylan sang, “We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun / And have it on Highway 61.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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