Winter has come to Davenport, Iowa. Temperatures, at 14F (-10C), are well below freezing. But it’s the cold winds of Donald Trump’s trade wars that worry Shaun Buckles.
Buckles, 40, worked at the John Deere construction and forestry manufacturing plant in Davenport for three years until he lost his job last month. He was one of 113 workers laid off; John Deere anticipates a 10-15% decline in sales of construction and forestry equipment next year.
Earlier this month, John Deere announced another 57 workers at the Davenport plant would be laid off, effective 6 January. According to a company spokesperson, 23 workers in Des Moines were terminated as well, effective 15 December.
The job cuts have come as demand for farming equipment shrinks in the midst of a trade war between the United States and China. In response to trade tariffs imposed on China by the Trump administration, China retaliated by halting or reducing purchases of soybean, corn, and other agricultural products. A ceasefire has now been called – but it’s too late for many workers.
“We were affected by these trade policies. It gives a sense of uncertainty in the economy,” said Buckles. “It’s rough on families, especially around the holidays. John Deere is one of the major employers in this area. The odds of finding something comparable to it are probably non-existent, but I can always try to hope.”
Layoffs in manufacturing have become common throughout the midwest even as the overall job market has remained strong. Trump campaigned on promises to bring back jobs, particularly to communities in the midwest that have been devastated from the decline of industry. But manufacturing has continued to suffer. Employment in US manufacturing peaked in 1979 with 19.4m jobs, and have steadily declined since to around 12.8m in 2019, though production output has nearly doubled during that same timeframe as automation and outsourcing have increased efficiency at the expense of US jobs.
Most states throughout the US have experienced steady job growth since the economic recession in 2008 and 2009, but growth in the midwest has lagged behind the rest of the country since December 2016, as sectors of manufacturing and agriculture the region relies on have taken hits due to Trump’s trade war.
“As a farmer, it’s killing us. By the time something changes, there will be no small farms,” said Jesse Oberbroeckling, who has worked at the John Deere plant in Dubuque, Iowa for nine years, and runs a small family farm. “I raise different crops and cattle, and prices are terrible. I sure as hell can’t afford to buy any John Deere equipment.”
John Deere is one of the largest employers in Davenport, Iowa and Dubuque, Iowa. Trump won Dubuque County in 2016, the first Republican presidential candidate to do so since Eisenhower in 1956. The company has not announced permanent layoffs yet at the Dubuque-based plant, which employs over 2,000 workers, but remaining workers at several John Deere plants have experienced cuts to shifts, downgrades to lower paying roles, temporary layoffs, and the company has rolled out a voluntary separation program.
“We’ve been experiencing minor layoffs. I’ve had a couple weeks where I work a week, have a week off,” said Louie Meier, who has worked at the John Deere plant in Dubuque for a year. “There are a lot of folks, especially new employees, we’re worried, we don’t know what our future looks like.”
A spokesperson for John Deere told the Guardian: “Each Deere factory balances the size of its production workforce with customer demand for products from their individual factory.”
John Deere declined to comment on how many workers were offered voluntary separation or whether there is a goal for how many workers will participate in the program.
Meier participated in a series of town halls around Iowa this week hosted by the Bernie Sanders’ founded progressive organization, Our Revolution, to highlight efforts against Trump’s policies that have negatively affected workers.
Meier cited Trump’s support for right-to-work laws that deplete his union, the United Auto Workers, of resources by allowing workers to avoid paying dues while still reaping benefits of union representation, and the National Labor Relations Board’s rollback of workers’ rights under Trump, as examples of how the Trump administration has favored corporations over workers.
“What is Trump doing to rectify these situations? Workers at John Deere aren’t getting bailed out,” said Meier of the decline of manufacturing jobs in the midwest.
“Looking around the city of Dubuque, our new jobs are in fast food. We lost a manufacturing plant; Flexsteel shut down this year; and some of our other manufacturing plants that are non-union, those workers haven’t been getting raises in years. There are lots of opportunities to get work in Dubuque if you can survive on $12 an hour.
“Going from making over $20 an hour to making $12 an hour, it’s putting a lot of Iowans in precarious situations.”