SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
John Deere is one of the world's largest makers of farming and construction equipment. The company's slogan is nothing runs like a Deere, except that right now, very little is running at their Midwest factories, where production is on hold because workers are on strike. Iowa Public Radio's Grant Gerlock reports the strike is happening as labor unions see themselves in a stronger bargaining position.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: Workers at the John Deere factory in Ankeny, Iowa, are off the production floor and on the picket line. About a dozen union members and supporters pace the crosswalk at one of the main roads into the plant. They're carrying signs that say, UAW on strike. Some wave down cars speeding down the street for honks of support.
NORA THOMAS: Hi. I have some drinks. You guys want some?
GERLOCK: Supporters like Nora Thomas stop to share food and drinks with people on the picket line. She remembers people helping her parents when her dad was on strike at a Maytag plant.
THOMAS: They struggled quite a bit. We would have - stop at the Union Hall to have food, that kind of stuff. And I just wanted to help pay it forward.
GERLOCK: This scene in Ankeny, where John Deere makes farm sprayers that can sell for $400,000, is also playing out at the tractor plant in Waterloo and the factory that makes bulldozers in Dubuque. In all, more than 10,000 union members are on strike in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas. The union has instructed workers not to give interviews, but they sent a clear message recently when 90% voted against Deere's latest proposed contract. That deal would have raised wages at least 5%, with lower-paid positions like painters earning about $20 an hour, but it would have put new hires into a less generous retirement system. Deere is on pace to make record profits of nearly $6 billion in 2021. And workers say they're holding out for a larger share of the company's success.
MICHAEL LEROY: What's going on is unions are relevant again.
GERLOCK: That's Michael LeRoy, who teaches labor relations at the University of Illinois.
LEROY: It's a reverse dynamic of what happened in the 1980s, where the power dynamic rapidly shifted against unions and workers. Now it is rapidly shifting in their favor.
GERLOCK: LeRoy says large strikes are rare these days at manufacturers like Deere, which for decades outsourced jobs. But that strategy sputtered when the U.S. imposed new tariffs on Chinese products and the supply chain unraveled.
LEROY: It worked when labor markets favored employers. Now it doesn't work.
GERLOCK: Instead, LeRoy says, unions are pushing back. In a statement, John Deere says the company is committed to reaching a deal with the UAW that would give workers the best wages in the industry. It also says nonunion employees will keep some production going. Alex Colvin at Cornell University says companies often bring in replacement workers. But because jobs are now so hard to fill, strikes may be more effective.
ALEX COLVIN: And I think that's why you're seeing some of these bigger ones, both John Deere - you've seen Kellogg's multilocations - and potentially, you know, 60,000 entertainment workers across the country. Those are pretty hard units to replace.
GERLOCK: Economists say the pressure is on John Deere to end the strike quickly. The company needs to keep production lines moving while farmers have the cash to pay for new equipment and big infrastructure plans are considered in Congress. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.