U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited a United Auto Workers (UAW) picket line outside the John Deere plant in Ankeny on Wednesday. The former Iowa governor showed support for the workers as the strike, which began at midnight on Oct. 14, finished its first week.
“For too long in this country, we haven’t paid as much attention and respect to people that work with their hands,” the secretary said.
Vilsack, who served as governor from 1999 to 2007, told reporters he appreciated the support he received from UAW members during his career in state politics. He was in Iowa to attend World Food Prize events and meet with Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development.
More than 10,000 workers at Deere’s manufacturing plants have been on strike, after 90 percent of UAW members who work in the plants voted to reject the company’s proposed contract. That contract would have eliminated pension benefits for new workers, replacing the current system with a 401(k) plan, among other conditions deemed unacceptable by the union.
Seven of Deere’s 14 manufacturing plants are located in Iowa. More than 6,000 workers from those plants are taking part in the strike. Negotiations between the UAW and the company resumed on Monday.
Vilsack declined to comment on Deere’s contract proposal when asked during his visit to the picket line.
“My job is to be here to basically support these folks,” he said. “They earned what they’re going to get. This is a company obviously that’s done very well recently. They’ve got record profits.”
The middle class built this country, and labor built the middle class. This afternoon, I joined the men and women of United Auto Workers Local 450 today as they continue their fight for a fair wage, better benefits, and a secure retirement. pic.twitter.com/wJ0Os369wO
— Secretary Tom Vilsack (@SecVilsack) October 20, 2021
There were approximately 75 workers on the picket line while Vilsack was there, but that number may drastically change if Deere is granted the temporary injunction they applied for in state district court, halting UAW’s use of picketers in Ankeny. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for Polk County District Court on Thursday, Oct. 21.
The company has already won a temporary injunction against UAW picketers at its Davenport plant. A state district court judge issued the temporary injunction on Wednesday, ordering strikers to keep off Deere property and not impede anyone entering or exiting the property. The injunction “limits the number of picketers to no more than four (4) peaceful picketers at the designated gate (two on each side).”
The judge adopted all 10 restrictions on strikers Deere asked for in its application for an injunction, taking the language describing those restrictions directly from the application. Among the 10 points, the judge prohibited strikers from “damaging the vehicles or property of [Deere’s] guests, agents, employees, or contractors, or threatening damage to the vehicles or property of Petitioner’s guests, agents, employees or contractors,” even though Deere’s attorneys never claimed in their statement of facts that any such activities had occurred.
In its application, Deere’s list of allegations regarding conduct of strikers was largely limited to blocked entrances, “yelled obscenities” and “aggressively waved signs.”
The last entry of the judge’s list of 10 restrictions is a catch-all, prohibiting “any other unlawful or disruptive acts this Court deems appropriate for injunctive relief.”
Any strike participant who violates a provision of the injunction faces the possibility of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Like Vilsack, other leaders in the Iowa Democratic Party have expressed their support for the strikers, and they did so as soon as the strike began. Leaders of the Iowa Republican Party were silent at first, with the exception of Sen. Chuck Grassley, who claimed last week not to know there was a strike or any labor dispute at Deere until a reporter brought up the topic at a news conference.
During the past week, the state’s three Republican members of Congress, Sen. Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds have all made statements.
In response to questions from reporters, a spokesperson for Ernst said the senator “is monitoring the situation.” A spokesperson for Rep. Ashley Hinson offered a slight variation on Ernst’s statement, saying as a freshman member of Congress who has two Deere plants in her district, she “is monitoring the situation closely.”
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks commented on the strike in a tweet that quoted an earlier tweet from Grassley, in which the senior senator referred to his time as a union laborer more than 50 years ago. Miller-Meeks highlighted Deere’s longtime role as a major employer in Iowa.
“John Deere has employed thousands of Iowa families for decades and has been a boost to the Iowa economy,” she said. “I hope business and labor can rapidly find common ground that benefits each other and we can continue being a shining example of what a hard day’s work means.”
John Deere has employed thousands of Iowa families for decades and has been a boost to the Iowa economy. I hope business and labor can rapidly find common ground that benefits each other and we can continue being a shining example of what a hard days work means. https://t.co/6bNcGQffu3
— Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, M.D. (@RepMMM) October 17, 2021
Rep. Randy Feenstra, who represents western Iowa, the most conservative part of the state, came the closest of any Republican leader to offering a pro-labor sentiment.
“John Deere, the manufacturing industry, and the men and women who build essential equipment are critical to the success of Iowa’s economy,” he said in a statement. “I am hopeful that business leaders and workers are able to reach an agreement to resolve this dispute.”
Gov. Reynolds did not make any public statement on the strike — the largest labor action in Iowa in decades — until she was asked about it by a reporter on Wednesday.
“They were back at the table on Monday, and I’m just hopeful that we can find resolution sooner rather than later,” the governor said.
Reynolds made her remarks at a news conference at which she unveiled policy changes designed to make it harder for Iowans to collect unemployment benefits.