By Tom Polansek
ANKENY, Iowa (Reuters) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited striking union members outside a Deere & Co farm equipment plant in Iowa on Wednesday, telling workers he supports them and the country needs them.
Deere employees represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) are joining thousands of other U.S. workers who have gone on strike in recent months, demanding higher pay and better working conditions.
Emboldened by a tight jobs market and an administration they consider sypathetic to unions, workers say the strikes are fueled in part by frustration over cuts to healthcare and retirement benefits at a time when their employers are reporting record-breaking returns.
"You work hard and you deserve a fair price and a fair deal," Vilsack told picketers. He said he would be happy to tell Deere Chief Executive Officer John May how important it is to resolve the dispute quickly and fairly.
The company in August raised its full-year earnings forecast amid strong demand.
Deere officials have repeatedly said they want to resolve the strike and maintain their employees' status as the best paid in the industry.
The strike at Deere, the largest U.S. farm equipment maker, began on Oct. 14 after 90% of hourly workers rejected the company's contract offer. Now, about 10,000 employees across 14 U.S. locations are on strike.
The strike is taking place in the middle of the U.S. corn and soybean harvest as farmers are struggling to find parts for tractors and combines.
"We care for the farmers," said Keith Chada, a committeeman for the UAW, who was at the Ankeny plant.
"At the end of the day, we'd like to be able to put our children through college, be able to afford the things that these people can afford on the other side."
As Vilsack pulled up in a SUV, protesters outside the plant waved blue and white signs declaring "UAW on strike." Drivers honked their horns in support as they drove past.
Vilsack shook hands and wished protesters luck. At one point, he pulled out an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lifetime honorary membership card from his pocket.
"It means a lot that he came out to show support for us," said Justin Limke, a UAW Local 450 vice president who works as a painter in the plant.
The visit echoed Vilsack's political past in 1998, when the then-Iowa state senator was lagging in Iowa's gubernatorial race.
"The UAW was with me from the get go," Vilsack said. "You don't forget the people that were with you."
(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Ankeny, Iowa; Writing by Caroline Stauffer and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Diane Craft)