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ANKENY — The country’s top ag official said Wednesday in Iowa that he hopes Deere & Co. and its striking workers achieve a rapid resolution to their labor impasse.
But U.S. Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, a Democrat and former Iowa governor, also expressed his strong support, both in word and deed, for the striking workers and the union that represents them.
Wednesday was the seventh day of the impasse between Deere & Co. and Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). The strike affects about 10,000 workers at factories in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.
Vilsack held a number of public events Wednesday in central Iowa with his counterpart from Mexico, Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula, to discuss international trade issues. After those events, Vilsack spoke to a few dozen striking workers on the picket line at Deere’s plant in Ankeny.
“(The striking workers) need somebody to give them a pat on the back,” Vilsack told reporters. “John Deere’s a great company. They ought to be able to get this worked out to a point where it’s fair to the workers, to make sure that we continue to have the equipment and farm machinery that’s important to American agriculture.”
While Vilsack spoke, cars driving by frequently honked their horns in support of the workers.
“You folks are hardworking folks. You provide a tremendous product. It’s one Americans rely on,” Vilsack told the workers. “It’s important, necessary for these issues to get resolved in a way that’s fair and equitable to all of you. … I just wanted to stop by and let you know that I haven’t forgotten you.”
Vilsack told the workers and reporters that the UAW was a critical supporter of his first gubernatorial campaign, in 1998.
“The UAW was with me from the get-go. You don’t forget the people that were with you,” Vilsack. “The UAW is important to me. I sincerely hope that they get these things this resolved as quickly as possible and as fairly as possible.”
In early negotiations, Deere’s initial offer would have raised wages by roughly 5 percent over the life of the six-year contract while also limiting retirement benefits for workers hired after the contract was ratified.
Deere workers overwhelmingly rejected that contract, citing the company’s record profits over the past year. For the 2020 fiscal year, Deere & Co.’s net income totaled $2.75 billion, according to the company.
In Davenport, a district court judge on Wednesday granted Deere & Co. a temporary injunction limiting how striking workers conduct themselves on the picket lines at the Davenport Works.
The company said the workers had disrupted access to their properties and put others, including UAW members, at risk.
Chief Judge Marlita Greve granted the temporary injunction, ordering the UAW to limit to four the number of people picketing "near" the gates of Davenport Works. The order banned the use of chairs and barrel fires by those striking and prohibited harassment and intimidation tactics that at least five trucking companies have said they encountered.
The injunction prohibits picketing or congregating "near the contractor gate entrance," which is regarded a neutral gate that cannot be picketed, Deere's documents state.
The ruling did not define "near" in specific distances.
The UAW has three days to respond to the court with its compliance plan.
Deere spokeswoman Jen Hartmann said the company sought the injunction “to maintain a safe environment for all our employees and contractors — including those reporting to work and those exercising their right to strike. This temporary injunction was put in place to provide safe entry and exit to the John Deere Davenport Works facility."
"As part of this strike, union members have trespassed and have engaged in mass picketing thereby blocking ingress and egress to parking lots and plant entrances," Deere said in its 10-page court petition. "Union members have prevented or attempted to prevent or hinder non-striking employees, customers and/or suppliers from entering or exiting Davenport Works."
Some drivers told Deere that the strikers "aggressively waved their signs" and sometimes nearly blocked their view as they exited the contractor gate.
"They have screamed through megaphones and other audible enhancing devices, paraded in the public road up leading to Davenport Works with banners and signs, impeded customers or contractors from attempting to enter and leave Davenport Works and have otherwise blocked the free flow of traffic on the public highways and/or into and out of Davenport Works," court documents claim. "They have committed acts of verbal and physical harassment, intimidation, mass picketing and other direct and indirect forms of intimidating acts and threaten to continue these acts."
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Quad-City Times reporter Barb Ickes contributed to this report.