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Iowa Labor History Workshop

From History Workshop, No. 17 (Spring, 1984), pp. 196-197

The first Iowa Labor History Workshop was held on 16 April 1983, at the Iowa City Public Library, co-sponsored by the Iowa City Local of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Iowa City Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. About 50 trade unionists, students, and historians attended.

The first panel concerned the Iowa Labor Oral History Project. For the last several years, the Iowa State Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, has sponsored and financed an oral history project with the goal of re-claiming the history of the Iowa labor movement during the last fifty years. Greg Zieren, a former interviewer for the project, discussed his experiences as an interviewer, and talked in some detail about perceptions of social class in Iowa and the experience of packinghouse workers at the Wilson Plantin Cedar Rapids. Ellis Hawley, a historian at the University of Iowa, commented on the usefulness of the project from the point of view of a professional historian.

Following this panel, Dick Greenwood, an assistant to the President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, changed the tone of the conference with a vivid discussion of his own history as an organizer and union official in Iowa. It is important to think about the future of the labor movement as well as the past, he argued, as he explained the various ways in which the machinists union is trying to establish ways for workers to control the introduction of new technology and see that it is applied for the benefit of working people.

After lunch and a round of American labor songs performed by Diane Hammon and others, three Iowa City residents discussed the history of the labor movement in Iowa City, an academic town with no traditions
of industrial unionism. Charles Ruppert recollected the history of the City Federation of Labor, particularly earlier social functions such as dances, parades, and softball games which have fallen into decay during the last two decades. Jim Walters and Carol Spaziani recounted the early history of the city and county employees unions, AFSCME 183, the problems involved with organizing people who think of themselves as professionals, and the difficulties (successfully overcome) which they faced in trying to persuade the great variety of city and county employees that they had common concerns and problems.

Running very late by this time, the conference heard from Shelton Stromquist, a labor historian at the University of Iowa, who explained the different reactions of two Iowa communities, Burlington and Creston, to The Great Railroad Strike of 1888. The high level of community support in Creston was crucial in maintaining the morale of the strikers and the relative success of the strike
there in contrast to Burlington, where community leaders managed to isolate and demoralize the strikers.

This conference maintained a good balance between the academic analysis and the personal reminiscence, and the turnout was very encouraging given the limited budget for publicity. Another conference is being planned for the spring of 1984; anyone who is interested should contact Shelton Stromquist, Tim Mattimoe, or Jeffrey Cox, all c/o the Department of History, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52240 USA.

Jeffrey cox

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Categories: Labor
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