OTTUMWA — Jubilant honks from supporters. Empty parking lots protected by barricades. Boos from picketers as semis entered the complex.

Union workers at John Deere Ottumwa Works are on strike.

As the clock struck midnight, and the calendar turned to Thursday, more than 10,000 workers part of the United Auto Workers union began taking rotations on a picket lines at 14 Deere plants in the country. Nearly 600 of those workers are based in Ottumwa.

Most of the workers, about 7,200, are based in Iowa. The other workers are in Illinois and Kansas.

The last major strike at Deere was 35 years ago and lasted 163 days.

On Sunday, workers turned away a contract offer by an overwhelming margin of nearly 90%. That set in motion a strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday for a deal. No such deal was reached.

In Ottumwa, about 87% of the 511 who voted rejected the proposed agreement. There are 581 union members that work at the Ottumwa plant, according to UAW Local 74.

The proposed agreement had been endorsed by union negotiators, including Chuck Browning, the union's vice president and director. He told union members in materials distributed ahead of the Sunday vote that he felt the agreement "will not only have an immediate impact on improving our members livelihoods but will benefit the Deere membership for many years to come."

The proposed contract would have given union employees either a 5% or 6% raise, depending on their positions, and additional 3% raises in 2023 and 2025. The agreement would eliminate the company's pension program for employees hired after Nov. 1, replacing it with a 401(k) option with a 100% match up to the first 6% of earnings.

That's a continuation of the company's path toward phasing out its pension program. A two-tier system created for employees hired in 1997 and after gives them less pension benefits, supplemented by a 401(k) plan and eliminated retiree health benefits.

Workers cast the contract aside in undeniable fashion, calling for more pay and better benefits as Deere & Company experiences strong sales and revenue projections nearing $6 billion. Deere expects to best its previous profit record by more than 60% this fiscal year, which ends next month.

Workers have also pointed to John Deere's CEO John May, who had a 160% pay increase from 2019 to 2020.

"Our members at John Deere strike for the ability to earn a decent living, retire with dignity and establish fair work rules," Browning said.

A statement from Deere said the company does not have a timeline to negotiations, as both sides vowed to continue working toward an agreement.

Brad Morris, the vice president for labor relations at Deere, said the company is determined to reach an agreement that "would put every employee in a better economic position and continue to make them the highest paid employees in the agriculture and construction industries."

"We will keep working day and night to understand our employees’ priorities and resolve this strike, while also keeping our operations running for the benefit of all those we serve," he said.

There were a handful of workers picketing at the main entrance on East Vine Street in Ottumwa, and another at the corner of Vine and North Madison Avenue on Thursday morning.

Most of the picketers had gathered at the truck entrance at Madison and East Finley avenues, however. There, they allowed trucks to enter with only momentary obstruction, after pleading requests for the trucks to skip their deliveries and booing when they decided to turn into the complex toward a manned security gate.

Union members will receive $275 in strike pay each week from UAW for as long as the strike continues.

Kyle Ocker is the editor of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at kocker@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.

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Kyle Ocker is a Centerville native and award-winning multimedia journalist. Kyle is currently the president of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and vice president of the Iowa Print Sports Writers Association.

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