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Deere union retiree: 'The young guys didn't know what a soup kitchen is'

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Mel Hesse, left, owner of The Pub, in Milan

Mel Hesse, left, owner of The Pub, in Milan, started what will become an ongoing offering Friday of supplying free meals to picketing UAW members. At right, Morrie Unterschiedt, said he remains appreciative of the support he got when he was a union leader for the UAW during the 1986 John Deere strike. 

Picketers with the UAW that represents employees of Deere & Co. gather at the Milan plant at 12:15 a.m. Thursday to begin a strike against the company. 

MOLINE — Even though he retired from John Deere 25 years ago, Morrie Unterschiedt couldn't stay away from the picket line.

"I went out there Thursday morning," the former UAW leader said. "It was like 1986 all over again, but, man, that one lasted a long time.

“I was talking about soup kitchens and all the help we got back then, and the young guys didn't know what a soup kitchen is.”

In fact, it was a coincidence that Unterschiedt stopped into The Pub in Milan on Friday, not knowing the tavern/restaurant's owner was preparing one of the Quad-Cities' first free meals for striking UAW members.

More than 10,000 Deere & Co. workers went on strike Thursday. The majority of the union rejected a contract offer that would have had 5% raises to some workers and 6% raises to others.

Mel Hesse said workers at Deere's nearby Parts Distribution Center supported her business during the pandemic, and she intends to return the favor.

"We want to show we're on their side," Hesse said. "They supported us, and we intend to the do the same."

Her husband is a union plumber/pipefitter with Local 25, she said, and other members of her family work for Deere. As long as the strike lasts, she said, The Pub will support the union.

"I've got some planning to do, but I'll probably do a meal once a week," Hesse said. "I'll take stuff out to them, too. I'll help any way I can."

From a stool across the bar, Unterschiedt said he still donates to local organizations that helped the UAW members during the '86 strike, which lasted 163 days.

"I've always had so much respect since then for the Salvation Army," he said. "They helped us so much. And it wasn't easy in those days, because — being a union leader — you couldn't win.

"Half the time, members of the union were mad at you and, half the time, the company was mad at you.

"There were a lot of people who stepped up, though; gave food to the soup kitchens and stuff. It was hard on a lot of people."

When he told Hesse that some of the younger picketers hadn't heard of a soup kitchen, she replied: "They're lucky not to."

But Unterschiedt said he's afraid their luck is about to run out — unless Deere and the UAW can agree on a contract.

"I try to tell the young people to put a few dollars away," he said. "I remember finding out how the other half lives. With no income coming in, you change your ways."

Hesse said she'll be there for the union for the long haul.

"If it keeps going, they'll need help," she said. "I want to do something for third shift, too — not leave them out. I'll go out after closing and take them something.

"We'll keep thinking about what we can do to help. I've got 70 pounds of pulled pork today. It's easy to make and goes a long way. It should give me an idea of how many I can feed and what more we can do.

"We fight with them."

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