(CN) — A 15-year John Deere employee and striking member of United Auto Workers Local 79 was killed Wednesday morning in western Illinois in what union leadership is calling a traffic accident.
The 56-year-old worker, identified by the Rock Island County coroner as Richard Rich, was struck by a car while walking to the picket line at the John Deere Parts Distribution Center in Milan, Illinois. The coroner reported he died of multiple traumatic chest injuries.
“On behalf of the UAW and all working families, we mourn the passing of our UAW brother,” UAW President Ray Curry said in an official statement. “It is a somber time to lose a member who made the ultimate sacrifice in reporting to picket for a better life for his family and coworkers.”
The Milan Police Department did not respond to a request for comment and has not revealed the identity of the driver who struck the worker.
UAW Local 79 President Sherrard Robinson announced shortly after Rich's death that the union branch would be ceasing picket activity for the day as it assessed the situation. Curry also announced that the union would fly its flag at half-mast for an unspecified amount of time in honor of Rich.
Some workers hold John Deere itself directly responsible for the incident, as the company allegedly told the striking workers they were not allowed to park on its property. The company's distribution center in Milan is surrounded by busy roads – Interstate 280 to the north and west, and the four-lane Rock Island-Milan Parkway to the south and east. Rich was killed while crossing the parkway before sunrise.
John Deere did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether striking workers are allowed to park on-site, but it did release a statement on Wednesday afternoon expressing condolences over the incident.
"We are saddened by the tragic accident and death of one of our employees who was struck by a vehicle before dawn this morning while crossing the Rock Island Milan Beltway. All of us at John Deere express our deepest condolences to their family and friends," the company said in its statement.
Other employees said that several street lights near the distribution center have been out since the strike began, adding to the danger of crossing a busy road.
"The city has 3-4 lights out that have been out since we started. Very unsafe. Shame on Milan and Deere should be very embarrassed," Cory Aguilar, a picker at the Milan facility, said in a Twitter post Wednesday.
A representative of the city of Milan passed responsibility for the street light outages to MidAmerican Energy.
"We don't fix street lights, that's MidAmerican Energy," the city representative said.
Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for MidAmerican, retorted that the company was not responsible for the street lights either.
“Those lights are not owned or maintained by MidAmerican,” Greenwood said. He said the lights are maintained either by Rock Island County or the Illinois Department of Transportation. He wasn’t sure which.
Parking situation aside, still other UAW members hold John Deere responsible for necessitating the strike in the first place.
"This a 100% John Deere's fault and responsibility. If not due to the greedy actions of a company owned by billionaires and conglomerates, this man would be alive and providing for himself and his family. Shame on John Deere for orchestrating the necessity for workers to fight for their lives in the job and on the picket line," UAW Local 249 Education Committee Chairperson Gary Thomas said in a post on the Facebook page of UAW Region 4.
Rich's death comes two weeks into the 10,000-strong strike by John Deere's unionized UAW employees. The strike began on Oct. 14, after over 90% of the company's UAW workers voted to reject a preliminary contract agreement offered by the company.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our brother who was reporting to the picket line. Our brother was fighting for what is right and we all mourn for his family and co-workers,” Ron McInroy, director of UAW Region 4, said in a prepared statement. “Through our tears, we continue to picket and honor the solidarity of our fallen brother. But we do this with heavy hearts today.”
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