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Iowa’s Role in Labor History

From Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters

Unions in Iowa
The first trade unions in Iowa date from the late 1850s.  Printers in Dubuque and Davenport formed local Typographical Unions.  During and after the Civil War, union formation increased rapidly, due to the growth of large-scale industry.  Unions of printers, shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, machinists, carpenters, cigar makers, iron molders, locomotive engineers, coal miners, and team drivers made their appearance.

Knights of Labor in Iowa
Many of these unions fell apart in the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1873.  But as economic conditions began to improve in the late 1870s and 1880s, the union movement took on new life and the ranks of organized labor began to swell.  Of particular importance during the 1880s was an early union known as the Knights of Labor.  Founded in 1869 in Philadelphia, the Knights grew steadily as a secret organization until the late 1870s.  In 1886, more than 750,000 workers could be found among its ranks.  Its rallying cry, “An injury to one is the concern of all,” appealed to all workers without regard to skill, race, or gender.

Coal miners from the east side of Des Moines organized the first local assembly of the Knights of Labor in Iowa in 1877.  In 1879, various locals in Iowa formed a district assembly which eventually included all of the state local assemblies.  In 1886, it was reorganized under the name, the Iowa State Assembly of the Knights of Labor.  By 1888, the Knights consisted on 188 locals with 30,000 members in Iowa alone.  When the Iowa Legislature met, the Knights maintained local representatives in Des Moines to protect the interests of working people.  As a result of these efforts, the Iowa Legislature established a Bureau of Labor Statistics and passed several laws dealing with mine safety in the 1880s.

Strong Opposition to Organized Labor in Iowa
Working people faced many obstacles in their effort to form and sustain trade unions.  Federal and state courts issued injunctions that forbade unions to strike or even to organize.  Courts sided with owners and managers in crushing strikes.  State and Federal officials frequently called out the U.S. Army or the State National Guard to break strikes.  One of the first labor injunctions used in the United States was issued in Boone County, Iowa, in 1885, to prevent picketing by striking coal miners.  Iowa governors called out the state militia whenever large numbers of working people went out on strike. Resistance to trade unions and hard times caused by the Panic of 1893 forced many unions to collapse.  Thousands of men and women were thrown out of work as mines, shops, and factories closed by the hundreds.  Workers who managed to keep their jobs faced drastic wage cuts.  Unemployment, bank failures, loss of savings, and other problems caused by economic depression continued until 1897.

Iowa State Federation of Labor
On the eve of the economic collapse that followed the Panic of 1893 Iowa trade unionists created a new umbrella organization entitled the Iowa State Federation of Labor.  This organization’s statewide authority was intended to serve as the political arm of the Iowa trade union movement.  Its purpose was to work for the interests of labor in the State Legislature and also to serve as the principal voice of the working people of Iowa.  A year later, it was granted a charter from the A. F. of L. and signed by Samuel Gompers.  By 1900, it began to maintain a permanent lobbyist at each session of the General Assembly. The State Federation of Labor worked successfully to build coalitions with forces they hoped would prove friendly, such as teachers, farmers, and religious organizations.  With their assistance the State Federation began to shepherd labor legislation, such as workers’ compensation, factory inspection, and child labor laws through the Iowa General Assembly.

The Twentieth Century Iowan Labor
During the final years of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the trade union movement in Iowa and throughout the nation grew rapidly.  By 1890, most of Iowa’s more than 5,000 coal miners were members of the United Mine Workers of America.  In that same year, most of the Iowa miners won the eight-hour day.  Railroad workers in Iowa were numerous and among the earliest to organize, initially along craft lines and briefly in the 1890s along industrial lines in the American Railway Union.  Other trades also joined existing unions.  By 1902, working people in Des Moines could boast 53 separate crafts organized into unions. Most unions were created by highly skilled craftsmen, but less skilled workers also sought and found protection in the union fold.  In Des Moines, for example, women telephone operators formed a union.  Button workers in Muscatine joined the ranks or organized labor as did retail clerks in numerous Iowa towns.

Wobblies in Iowa
The Industrial Workers of the World (I. W. W. or “Wobblies”) was organized in 1905 and sought to build a revolutionary alternative to the American Federation of Labor.  Its most spectacular successes came in the lumber camps, mining towns, and settlements of agricultural laborers in the West and among unskilled immigrants in factory towns in the East.  The I. W. W. was briefly present in a few Iowa communities, notably Sioux City.  It also provided a direct and powerful experience in industrial unionism for numbers of young workers who left Iowa, but later returned to play important roles in building industrial unions among packinghouse and farm equipment workers during the C. I. O. era.

After the United States entered World War I, increasing numbers of semiskilled and unskilled industrial workers began to form or join unions.  Large numbers of packinghouse workers in Ottumwa, Des Moines, Sioux City, and elsewhere formed unions, as did workers in the gypsum mills and mines in the Fort Dodge area.  This was the direct result of Federal wartime measures, which gave workers the legal right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. This battle was not won then, nor was it won 15 or 20 years later. Employers fought with all the weapons at their disposal to smash existing unions and prevent the formation of new ones.

Roaring Twenties in Iowa
The “Roaring Twenties” was a dismal and bitter period for organized workers.  Despite the appearance of economic prosperity, affluence was extremely spotty.  Since the end of World War I, Iowa farm owners and workers had suffered their own economic depression. As mines closed in Iowa, thousands of coal miners lost their livelihood.  In 1921, employers succeeded in crushing gypsum mill and packinghouse unions. A year later, a strike of railroad shopmen went down in defeat.

Iowa Unions Under the New Deal
Of all of these programs, the one which affected organized labor the most was the National Recovery Administration, called by its initials, the N. R. A. This agency allowed businessmen to fix prices and allocate production quotas through codes of competition.  Included in the law was the famous section, Section 7(a), which provided that every code of fair competition must provide employees the right to form and join unions of their own choosing in order to bargain collectively with their employers.

Section 7(a) acted as a catalyst for the labor movement.  Immediately, workers across the nation again began to form unions.  The union that made the most significant gain in membership was the United Mine Workers of America, headed by John L. Lewis.  Lewis was born near Lucas, Iowa, and spent his youth in Iowa coal mines.  The U. M. W. A. launched a massive organizing drive.  By the end of 1933, it had organized the country’s major coal fields and emerged as the nation’s biggest and strongest union.  The U. M. W. A. was, however, not alone in taking advantage of Section 7(a). Packinghouses and factories across Iowa and the nation also established unions.  Many were short-lived, for management continued to bitterly oppose them and, despite the law, refused to deal with them.  In 1935, the United States Supreme Court overturned a major portion of the law creating the N. R. A.

Years of Union Growth in Iowa
Beginning in 1937, Iowa unions started a rapid and sustained growth that continued well into the mid-1940s.  These years witnessed the establishment of unions in bakeries and butcher shops, hotels and grocery stores, laundries and foundries, brickyards and cement plants, gypsum mills and grain mills, packinghouses and auto repair shops across Iowa.  Workers in plants assembling electrical equipment fought to establish unions.  The same struggle took place in farm implement factories.  Truck drivers and warehousemen joined unions.  Carpenters, bricklayers, pipefitters, painters, electricians, and other skilled craftsmen formed and joined unions in their respective crafts.

Even after 1937, many firms continued to resist the efforts of their employees to form unions and gain bargaining rights.  Workers in a number of Iowa industries were forced to undergo protracted strikes to win union recognition.  Members of the Machinists and Molders Unions in Dubuque were on strike for months. Workers had to engage in sit-down strikes before their employers would bargain with them. The laundries and dry cleaning shops in Des Moines were closed for weeks before proprietors would consent to bargain. Some unionizing efforts did meet with violence.  Armed vigilantes blocked the streets of Estherville to prevent union men from entering the town to speak with workers employed in a local packinghouse.  When employers in Newton and Sioux City appealed to the governor, he responded favorably by sending out the National Guard.

The Post-War Labor in Iowa
The war’s sudden and dramatic end in August, 1945, brought an abrupt cancellation of military orders.  Thousands of workers suddenly found themselves without jobs.  Even workers who kept their jobs saw their income slashed as overtime wages suddenly ceased.  In Iowa, thousands of workers who had been employed in huge ordinance plants in Burlington and Des Moines became unemployed as the plants closed.  Blacks experienced what they had already known:  they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.  Women workers were also hard hit by the loss of defense jobs.  Told that their proper place was in the home, motherhood was once again romanticized.  In short, as soon as the economic necessity for women in the workplace declined, their job security ended.

Iowa Anti-Labor Legislation
“Right to work” laws have nothing to do with the right to work.  These laws outlawed union shop agreements in which unions and management agree that all members of a bargaining unit must become members of the union within a specific time period.  “Right to work” laws allowed individuals to reap benefits won by unions without paying union dues.  The Iowa “right to work” law was passed in 1947 and is still in effect today.

Iowa Merger
Dramatic change occurred in 1955 with the merger of the A. F. of L. and the C. I. O.  This merger brought to an end many years of conflict and competition as the two rival federations raided each other’s membership.  The merger was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm.  Many hoped that the newly consolidated A. F. L.-C. I. O. would use its finances and energies to organize the unorganized.  For the first time in 20 years, American labor could speak with a single political voice.

At the state and local level, the once-rival A. F. L. and C. I. O. organizations also combined forces.  The Iowa State Federation of Labor was the A. F. L.’s state organization.  The C. I. O.’s state body was the Iowa State Industrial Union Council.  These two organizations met in convention in Des Moines, and on June 26, 1956, became the Iowa Federation of Labor.  The establishment of this new unified organization was accomplished without turmoil.  In fact, Iowa was the third state in which the two major labor bodies merged.  Since its founding, the Iowa Federation of Labor has worked to safeguard and promote the rights of workers, farmers, and consumers and protect its security and welfare of the people as a whole.

Iowa Labor’s Political Victories
By no means have all legislative victories occurred at the Federal level.  In Iowa, the Iowa Federation of Labor and other labor organizations have fought to strengthen Iowa’s laws governing workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits.  The Iowa labor movement has fought hard to eliminate laws that made it difficult for people to register to vote by helping push through postcard registration.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Iowa Federation of Labor spearheaded the fight for this fair apportionment of the State Legislature based on one person, one vote.  Battles over this issue raged in both the General Assembly and the courts. In 1972, the Iowa Supreme Court did finally implement a reapportionment plan that for the first time apportioned the Iowa General Assembly on the basis of one person, one vote.

Iowa labor has long fought for higher pay for teachers and a fairer tax system.  It has worked long and hard for legislation giving public employees the same rights to collective bargaining as enjoyed by other Americans.  In 1974, the Iowa Public Employment Relations Act was signed into law.

Categories: Labor
  1. mike mccauley
    June 6, 2012 at 1:52 AM

    very interesting. just what i was looking for. with the wisconsin loss for labor and the drop in membership since scott walkers law. my dad was a union man and ive been in several unions. im a strong believer in unions. i work in a motor shop now for 16yrs and its non-union. there is a difference. the strength of a union is in its members. ive been in strong and weak unions. union is a bad word in the shop i work at now. might get u terminated. i see the demise of unions coinsiding with the demise of the middle class. its a sad day. i was curious about the history of unions and the right to work law in my state. i see its been an up and down battle. reason for hope i think. of course it will unfortunatly involve blood shed i fear. thank u for the information.

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