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‘A Way of Life Is At Stake.’ Striking John Deere Workers Defy the Company, and Their Union, to Tell Their Stories

For the first time in generations, workers at John Deere have the upper hand. But they’re struggling to figure out how to make it count, and whom they can trust
Scott Olson/Getty Images

I t’s an October Saturday in Iowa and the farmers ride green machines. Some wear headphones as they tend the land between the towns of What Cheer and Ottumwa. The Hawkeyes are playing the Badgers, a game that can’t be missed, but, still, there’s work to be done and only so much daylight. I’m on State Route 21, the sun is shining, and a gentle autumn wind blows through my open window. It is hard not to be sentimental about America the beautiful.

But it doesn’t take long for that sentimentality to morph into defiance. About 45 minutes later, I pull into the union headquarters of Local 74 in Ottumwa. The smoke from a burn barrel fills my nostrils. Inside, the union hall has enough canned goods to withstand the siege of Leningrad if the Russians had subsisted on stacks of canned Dinty Moore stew and cases of Mountain Dew.

The workers here build those green machines that glisten in the sun, specifically hay balers. They do their work amidst the noise and the heat of the nearby Deere Ottumwa Works factory. Many have shoulder and arm trouble from years of labor. During Covid, they were declared essential workers and did not miss a day of work.

Now it is time to negotiate a new six-year contract. For the first time in their lifetime, 10,000 John Deere workers hold the good cards. Corn and soybean prices are soaring, farmers are in the mood for new equipment. It’s not 1986 when Deere workers went on strike during a farming crisis. And it’s not 1997 when Deere forced through a contract that slashed retirement benefits with threats of closing factories here and in Ankeny, 90 miles away.

But this is America in 2021. Fairness is weakness. Kindness is gauche. In October, Deere proposed a contract with a five percent raise but no pension plan for new hires. With inflation, the workers would still be making less in real dollars than their predecessors. The company argued they would still provide decent medical benefits, an alleged perk in the only country of its kind without universal healthcare.

So 10,000 Deere hourly workers went on strike. Here in Ottumwa, men and women mill about in hoodies and Carhartt jackets preparing to hit the picket lines. It’s Day 17 of a walkout that has the not-humble dream of redressing two generations of worker humiliation. Oh, and one other thing: Their strike has become a cause célèbre, a sort of Lexington and Concord for all American working people tired of getting the short and sharp end of the stick.

Their opponent is formidable. The John Deere Corporation will make just short of $6 billion this year making tractors, balers, and other farm equipment that can run up to $500,000 apiece. They have a profoundly loyal client base that hold Deere festivals across the county, not unlike a Trekkie convention for implements that till the soil.

Deere’s stock price has quadrupled in five years. (A worker tells me buying stock at a discount is not a benefit provided by Deere to its hourly workers. “We do get a 10-percent discount on swag at the company store.”) And yet, more profit begets wanting even more profit. A John Deere executive promised on an earnings call in 2019 that the company would increase yearly operating profits to 15 percent by 2022.

Meanwhile, Deere’s already low wages continued to sink behind inflation after the company took away cost-of-living raises in the 2015 bargaining agreement. That kind of avarice has been duly endured by Deere workers, who have been told by management to shut up and eat your frozen pizza lest we ship your jobs overseas.

Of course, that’s not the official Deere line. “One of the goals of our ongoing negotiations is to agree on how we can continue to share in the company’s success in the years ahead, which includes competitive pay for performance incentives for all employees, best-in-the-industry wages and benefits, and continued industry-leading health care,” says Jennifer Hartmann, Director of Strategic Media Relations for Deere. “Lastly, we wish to invest in the livelihoods of our employees so that they can have a dignified retirement.”

Exactly zero Deere workers believe this. And the bill has now come due. Worker shortages have swept the country. Republicans and the landed gentry have made a strategic and public-relations error: They claim the shortage is because pandemic benefits were too generous, and workers are lazing at home watching CSI repeats and eating Hot Pockets. That is exactly wrong. The pandemic left workers shouting “fuck that” when it comes to returning to work in hot and dangerous plants for wages so low that they leave some union workers with large families eligible for food stamps.

Inside the hall, an intense bald man dressed all in green, as if he is about to go on a special-ops mission, thrusts a piece of paper describing what they pay at the nearby JBS Foods in Ottumwa.

“Did you see this?” asks Chris Laursen, a painter at Ottumwa Deere with 19 years of service. His eyes shine with the intensity of a Bernie Sanders delegate and a man who served as an Army Scout during the First Gulf War.

“That’s more than a lot of people make at Deere. Their offer is a slap in the face.”

It’s true, the per-hour rate at JBS ranges from $24 to $31 an hour, significantly higher than the $20-to-$25 rate most make at Deere. “I make $20.92 after 19 years,” says Laursen. “I could go slaughter pigs and get a raise.”

Laursen and I jump in his pickup truck and head over to check on picketers outside the Ottumwa Deere gates. He tells me that the UAW has leaned on individual members not to talk to the media and send reporters to the home office, but that’s not Laursen’s style. “I have a constitutional right to speak. They can’t stop that.” We pass row after row of small homes where many of the Deere workers live and raise their kids.

“We’re really at a turning point,” says Laursen as he honks at his fellow union members and slams the car to a stop. “This is really a crucial moment for America. Do we want to become like South America, where there’s just rich and poor and no middle class? Because that’s where we’re heading if people like us don’t stand up and say, ‘no more.’”

We walk over to the strikers, a mixture of couples in Kiss T-shirts, retirees, men with beards and the grandchildren of workers. Laursen shows me their supply tent full of homemade brownies baked by supportive locals. For the first time in the hour since I arrived, Laursen takes a breath. “I’m sorry that I’m so worked up.” He pointed out at the workers carrying signs. “It’s just that a way of life is at stake.”

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Construction and farming vehicles manufactured by John Deere are loaded onto trucks at the John Deere Dubuque Works facility in Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

JOHN DEERE’S CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS and a significant number of its factories are in the Quad Cities, a series of small industrial towns that straddle both the Iowa and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River. For a century, it has been considered the premier corporation in the area. “It’s not true anymore,” says Laursen. “It’s sad.”

One of my first days in the area, a longtime worker gives me a driving tour of the area’s six Deere factories and the executive grounds resplendent with geese and tranquil ponds. He blasts Ozzy from his SUV. On his arm is a UAW tattoo and a facsimile of his John Deere punch card complete with his employee number. His family have been Deere workers since World War II. His father was a Deere worker and is long dead. He brought home much more pay than his son, who’s driving me around.

The man doesn’t blink when we technically trespass on Deere’s executive drive, but he flinches when we pass some UAW workers walking a picket. That’s because, as Laursen told me, talking with the media is forbidden.

“Can you not use my name?” asks my driver, suddenly looking afraid. “I don’t want to get jammed up with the union.”

You may remember the UAW from their historic battle for factory workers in the auto industry in the 1930s and 1940s. More recently, you may know them for presiding over the closing of an iconic GM plant outside of Youngstown and two of their recent executives going to prison for graft. In May, former UAW president Dennis Williams was sentenced to 21 months in prison after being convicted of embezzling and various misdeeds that included Florida vacations paid for with union dues and a $1.1 million house built on union property.

The UAW’s corruption is so dense and gnarled that the United States government has assigned a federal official to monitor their daily activities. Union defenders suggest that even during the union’s darkest days they were able to negotiate a solid new contract with Ford and GM. (This last point would be hotly and profanely disputed by the workers who lost their job at the Chevy Cruze plant in Lordstown, Ohio.)

Keeping the rank and file on mute seems an odd gambit. There would be no workers talking of working for 30 years and receiving a monthly pension of $900. There would be no talk of Deere workers taking side jobs to make car payments. These were all stories told to me by Deere workers, some speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to not bring the wrath of the national union down on them. I asked Brian Rothenberg, director of media relations for the UAW, if a gag order had been put in place.

“It is common during bargaining and strikes, given the legal implications of the action, to ask for media to be referred to one source to clarify misinformation or potential legal issues,” Rothenberg tells me. “That said, a quick Google search will show that members have been quoted. On its face, the facts contradict your question.”

Not exactly. The fact that a few brave members were willing to talk and contacted me surreptitiously or through the magazine’s tip line doesn’t exactly suggest an open marketplace of ideas between the UAW and its members.

Shutting down your most persuasive weapon — the workers — in a public relations war suggests a union as out of touch with the needs of the workers as Deere’s CEO John May, who makes nearly $15 million a year in total compensation. Proof of their cluelessness arose when the UAW negotiating team brought back the first tentative agreement reached with Deere. The union heralded an agreement including a five percent raise over the first five years and a reinstatement of cost-of-living-allowance (COLA) raises based on inflation. There was no “make good” payment to make up for the lack of COLA over the six years of the previous agreement, so it left Deere workers making less in real dollars than they were in 2015.

There was no addressing the fact that Deere employees routinely retire between 55 and 60 with broken bodies after years of arduous work and must pay their own onerous health insurance until they hit 65 and qualify for Medicare. (Their other choice is to keep working. One Deere employee talked of “walking dead” employees shuffling to their stations intent on remaining on Deere insurance until they turned 65.) There also were no meaningful changes to Deere’s pitiful retirement plan — well, except if you were a new hire. Then you got no pension, just the spin-the-roulette security of a 401(k) with the company providing some meager matching funds. Still, leadership thought it was a great deal.

“It is my belief that this tentative agreement will not only have an immediate impact on improving our members’ livelihoods but benefit the Deere membership for many years to come,” said Chuck Browning, UAW vice president and head negotiator.

The workers? They thought otherwise. Many of them gathered in early October at Moline’s TaxSlayer Arena to hear their union explain the agreement. After the negotiating team finished their presentation, workers moved to a series of microphones to express their dissatisfaction.

An African American machinist stepped up and began speaking. She got right to the point. “I’m going to retire from this place, and I want people coming after me to be able to come in here and have pride in what they do.” She paused for a second and her voice rose. “You’re killing it. You’re killing that pride.”

Speaker after speaker denounced the agreement in salty and straight language. One speaker pointed at a co-worker on the negotiating panel. “You know me, you know I can’t vote for this.”

“I wouldn’t have taken a million dollars to have been on that stage with those guys,” says a union worker. ”Because I would have been scared for my life.”

That afternoon, the Deere rank and file voted down the agreement by 90 percent. They went on strike 48 hours later.

THE MORNING AFTER I ARRIVED, the local news blazed on about an accident outside the John Deere Parts Distribution Plant in nearby Milan, Illinois. A few hours later, it was announced that a Deere striker was trudging back to his car after a midnight-to-six a.m. picket shift. He was hit at a poorly lit intersection that had no crosswalk. Picketers had been complaining about the dangerous crossing since the strike started. Richard Rich was 56 and had worked at Deere for 15 years. He loved Judas Priest and pulling pranks on his friends and family. I drove over to the intersection later that morning. I found strikers standing at the intersection, red-eyed and dazed. I approached a group of workers and asked them what happened. I was met with stony looks.

“Leave us alone. We ain’t got nothing to say.”

I drove around the corner and parked my car near Gate 5 of the plant. There were no picketers there, they had just been pulled off the line to mourn. Across the road, a man started a giant John Deere harvester. After warming up, the machine turned its angry blades through the already wasted cornstalks of a small field adjacent to the factory. I watched for 15 minutes or so. Soon, the ground was flat, just a pile of dirt. The Deere machine left no trace that anything had grown there before.

MATT DeLOOSE TAKES A WARY look before he and his wife Tamra take a seat with me in the back of the cozy East Moline Coffee Company. With the no-media edict, you can’t be too careful. It’s a small town and everyone has a connection to Deere. He wears a cap pulled low over his bearded, sunburnt face and sports a T-shirt that quotes JFK: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

DeLoose took medical retirement from the military and has worked at Deere for nearly 12 years. He admits that he voted for the 2015 contract out of fear, but no more.

“Now we have the power,” says DeLoose. “Deere has to do something or they’re making a big mistake.”

Like many of the workers I talked to, DeLoose points out that Deere is no longer the dream place to work, and many of the workers stayed only because of the medical benefits and for the meager retirement benefit payoff. Before, getting a job at Deere involved a significant vetting program and a requirement of previous line experience. Deere might receive 150 applications for 10 openings. Now, workers tell me they’re begging for workers.

“They’ve eliminated the high-school diploma and GED requirements,” says DeLoose. “They’ve started hiring people with convictions. They’ve loosened their drug test restrictions. You have people that are coming in that don’t know what a socket is, what a screwdriver is. That all gets back to the lack of competitive wages. We have workers who finish their seven-month probation period and then jump to another company because they are paying seven or eight dollars more an hour.”

Unfortunately, that information hasn’t trickled out to the public at large. While most of the local population has been supportive, DeLoose still gets the occasional “Deere is the best place to work, what are you guys complaining about?” When he hears that, DeLoose tells them about forced overtime during the pandemic, as Deere compelled workers to do 12-hour shifts as parts trickled in slowly during the supply-chain crisis. He tells them about how Deere shuts down for two to three months every year due to seasonal needs that can drop take-home pay to $40,000 a year for the company’s lowest-paid workers.

I first spotted DeLoose waving a UAW flag at a protest march in Moline. He splits his time at Deere as a forklift driver and as a UAW committeeman inside his factory. His grandmother and his father were union members, and his aunt was a prominent union activist at Deere decades ago. Like many I talked with, it was the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders that reinvigorated his resolve.

Still, he has a complicated relationship with the international union headquartered in Detroit. He believes that the UAW decision to strangle information is counterproductive and leaves his fellow workers in limbo. He points back at the young woman working the counter. “I told her you might want to tell him, if he’s got an opportunity to go find another job and still do his picket duties, he should do it. We don’t know. And we’re not getting a lot of information back.”

DeLoose is not the only one. Many workers told me they were dissatisfied with the short amount of time from when they were apprised of Deere’s original offer and when they had to vote. “The UAW doesn’t want us to look at it too closely,” a worker told me. “And that’s my future at stake.”

DeLoose and Tamra are trying to show the workers that someone at the local union cares for them. Tamra has “adopted” a man on the line and is making sure he and his wife are getting enough formula and diapers for their baby.  “I think even in the local, a lot of people have been beaten down,” Matt tells me. “I try to give everyone my cell phone and go to the different pickets and tell them what I know.”

Matt has three kids, including one who just turned 18.

“We were going to encourage him to apply to Deere,” says Tamra. “But he said he was going to be a big boy and go his own way.” She then offers a proud smile.

“I’m kind of glad he made that decision.”

BACK IN OTTUMWA, Toby Munley gives me a ride from the picket lines back to the union hall in his beat-up truck.

“You got to slam the door hard, it’s a salvage.”

Munley is a large man wearing a baseball cap and a St. Louis Cardinals hoodie. “I tell people that I have diabetes, C.O.P.D. and F.A.T.,” says Munley with a raspy laugh.

He wants to dispel me of any clichéd notions I might have about the strike and the modern union movement. “We’re not all Democrats,” says Munley. “I bet half the people inside voted for Trump. You could go to the shittiest house in town, think it was abandoned, and you’d see a Trump flag. I don’t like it, but I understand it, they don’t think the Democrats have done anything for them.”

Munley and Laursen are, shall we say, at the other end of the political spectrum. They both used to be door-to-door salesmen and are beyond eager to get their point across. Both are ardent Bernie Sanders supporters with Laursen voting Green rather than supporting Hillary Clinton or Biden and Munley screaming “corporate whore” at Clinton during one of her campaign speeches.

Both Laursen and Munley support union reform, speaking out at the last UAW convention. (“I’ll eat their fancy spread and drink their beer and then tell them they’re full of shit,” Laursen told me). They both support election reform that would transform the UAW from a delegate system not unlike the Electoral College to a one-worker, one-vote system that they insist will cut down on cronyism. Laursen and Munley’s actions on both political and labor fronts did not sit well with the more moderate members of their union where the two served as elected leaders. After four tumultuous years, they were overwhelmingly voted out by their local last spring.

“I think we made some mistakes,” says Munley waving at some union brothers. “Chris has gone to Standing Rock and was all about justice and the big picture. You have to keep it local and not some national thing.”

For Munley, that means honing the Deere strike to three main points: post-retirement health care for workers, wage equity with other manufacturers, and a return to the pension standards that Deere granted before 1997 rollbacks. “If I retire at 60, I’ve got to scramble for coverage until Medicare kicks in,” says Munley. “God knows how much that is going to cost.”

But he can’t help himself. “It’s not just John Deere,” says Munley. “If we don’t get billionaires to pay for the roads they use and pay their fair share, none of this will matter. It has to change.”

We shake hands and I jump out of the car and close the door with not enough heft.

“I said slam the fucking door, it’s a salvage,” shouts Munley.

He then smiles.

“Be good, brother.”

SHORTLY AFTER I LEFT OTTUMWA, the UAW and John Deere reached another tentative agreement. Details were released the next day. Across the board pay hikes were increased from five percent to 10 percent. Future pay raises in 2023 and 2025 was raised from three percent to five percent.

A ratification bonus — a very legal incentive to vote yes — was raised from $3,500 to $8,500. There were slight raises to the workers’ calcified retirement plans that would see retirement pensions raise for some from $750 a month to around $1,100 a month. There was no movement on a retiree health program, but Deere offered $2,000 for each year of service that ostensibly could be applied to paying insurance premiums.

The offer was just good enough to divide the workers. The hardcore Chris Laursen was a surprise yes. “I think it is pretty fair, and if we vote it down, the public might turn on us,” Laursen told me. Supporters of the second offer believed in realpolitik: There was no way one agreement could claw back all that was lost over the past 30 years. Chris’ buddy Toby disagreed. While he saw progress, it wasn’t enough. “They can do better wage-wise, and pension and post-retirement is still a must. We have to remember we will never have the scale tilted in our favor like this again.”

The vote was scheduled for Tuesday. Learning from their past mistakes, the UAW split Deere workers into smaller groups. Not that there wasn’t some score-settling. The UAW didn’t even send a representative to the Waterloo union, long considered the most militant of the Deere factories. In the Quad Cities, a worker’s mic was cut off after he started talking about how John May’s raise was, percentage-wise, so much higher than what Deere was offering the workers.

That afternoon, I headed down to meet with Matt DeLoose at UAW Local 865 in East Moline. The parking lot was crammed with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Workers milled about in small groups, the mood somber, neither celebratory nor angry. Matt had told me on Sunday that he was going to vote yes, but something had changed. Even with the new concessions, Deere’s payout would be a tiny blip on their flush bottom line. Matt fidgeted with his hands going into and out of his pockets.

“I know we’re not going to get back everything we lost in one contract, but I started thinking if they can pay their board of directors $140,000 for coming to meetings on Zoom calls while we worked through Covid, they can afford to pay us more.” (Matt was right about the board of director compensation, but he didn’t mention that they received another six figures in stock).

DeLoose talked with his brother, another Deere worker and a Trump supporter. They reasoned that if Deere gave this much after three weeks, there was more room to bargain.

There was something else that bothered Matt: The international UAW was trying to sell them on the deal too hard. “They talked about how this was a good deal without causing detriment to Deere and that we wouldn’t have to worry about them outsourcing some of our work, said DeLoose. He nodded hello to another worker walking back. “The contract should sell itself. It shouldn’t need to make us afraid.”

But there was something else that happened. He listened to a song by the metalcore band Hatebreed called “I Will Be Heard.”

“Listening to that, a voice inside was telling me you got to go ‘no’ on this.”

He didn’t know what was going to happen. All he knew was that some of his union brothers had voted, listened some more, reconsidered and exchanged their old ballot for a new one.

I asked him how he was feeling. “Check back with me tonight after they announce the results,” he said as he went to commiserate with his union brother. “I still might not know how I feel.”

That night, before the results were announced, Matt went home and tried to figure out how to tell Tamra that he had changed his mind and voted no. They folded laundry together. Before he could figure out the right words, Tamra told him she needed to tell him something.

“I wish you would have voted no.”

Matt let out an exhausted smile.

“I did.”

Then they hugged.

AROUND 9 P.M., THE RESULTS came in. The union turned down the tentative agreement by a 45 percent-55 percent vote. On an election night where Virginia was lost and a socialist mayoral candidate in Buffalo was defeated by an incumbent who lost his primary but won as a write-in, it was a rare glimmer of hope. Still, it was a sort of defeat for the union members at Deere. The close vote suggested the rank and file were fractured and that Deere could wait them out. Winter was coming, and the UAW was paying its striking brethren just $275 a week. Some felt Deere would just wait out the union, starve their resources, and return with a similar offer that a desperate union might jump at in January or February.

The next morning, I met with Matt and Tamra for a last cup of coffee. He looked exhausted but resolute.

“We’re going to hold the line.”

What comes next is unknown. Deere announced after the vote that the company had made their last and best offer. Some workers thought Deere would cave, others felt like it was going to be a long, cold winter on the picket line. It felt like Deere workers and American labor were on a precipice: They could either tumble to their deaths or somehow leap the chasm and enter a brighter tomorrow.

Right now, all Matt and Tamra could do was hold hands. They gripped each other tightly and then released them.

And then Matt picked up a pen. He started filling in an application for a job at the East Moline Coffee Company.