Labor Unions in Iowa

Unions have played a key role in the history of labor in the United States. They have also been important in Iowa.

Iowa's First Unions

The first trade unions in Iowa date from the late 1850s when printers in Dubuque and Davenport unionized. During and after the Civil War (1861-65) union formation increased rapidly. Unions of printers, shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, machinists, carpenters, cigar makers, iron molders, locomotive engineers, coal miners and team drivers formed.

An early union, the Knights of Labor, was founded in 1869 in Philadelphia. By 1888 the Knights had 30,000 members in Iowa.

In 1886 a new organization of laborers became the main national labor body in the country. It was known as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was made up of skilled craftsmen from various trades.

Working people faced many obstacles in their efforts to form and sustain trade unions. Troops were frequently called out to break strikes in which workers refused to work. One of the first times the courts became involved in labor disputes in the United States was in 1885 in Boone County, Iowa, when striking coal miners were ordered to stop picketing.

The Iowa Federation of Labor

In 1893 Iowa trade unionists created the Iowa State Federation of Labor. Its purpose was to work for the interests of labor in the state legislature.

The state Federation of Labor worked to build relationships with teachers, farmers and religious organizations. With their assistance, the state federation supported workers' compensation, factory inspection and child labor laws through the Iowa General Assembly.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the union movement in Iowa grew rapidly. By 1890 most of Iowa's 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. In the past workers were required to work 12 or 15 hour days. Railroad workers in Iowa were among the earliest to organize unions. By 1902 working people in Des Moines could boast 53 separate craft unions. Craft unions joined workers according to their craft or type of work—plumbers, electricians, etc. Throughout Iowa workers had organized. In Des Moines women telephone operators formed a union. Button workers in Muscatine joined the ranks of organized labor, as did retail clerks in numerous Iowa towns.

World War I

After the United States entered World War I, increasing numbers of 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.

With the end of World War I in 1918, Iowa farm owners and workers suffered from economic depression. As mines closed in Iowa, thousands of coal miners lost their jobs. In 1921 gypsum mill and packinghouse unions were crushed. A year later a strike of railroad shop workers went down in defeat.

The Great Depression

Times were even worse during the Great Depression that began in 1929. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. Roosevelt launched several major programs, including the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Among other things, the NRA guaranteed employees the right to form and join unions.

Immediately workers across the nation again began to form unions that had been disbanded. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) greatly increased membership. The union was headed by John L. Lewis, who had been born in Lucas, Iowa, and spent his youth in Iowa coal mines. Additionally, packinghouses and factories across Iowa and the nation established unions.

The Union Movement Is Reborn

During the next few years union membership rose from about three million to about 8.5 million in 1941. In Iowa union growth continued into the mid-1940s. These years witnessed the establishment of unions in bakeries and butcher shops, hotels, grocery stores, laundries, foundries, brickyards, cement plants, gypsum mills, 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 warehouse workers joined unions. Carpenters, bricklayers, pipefitters, painters, electricians and other skilled crafts workers formed and joined unions.

Although unions in Iowa grew in numbers between 1937 and 1945, many firms continued to resist the efforts of their employees to form unions and gain bargaining rights. In some Iowa industries workers went on strike to win union recognition. Members of the Machinists and Molders Unions in Dubuque were on strike for months. The laundries and dry cleaning shops in Des Moines were closed for weeks before proprietors would consent to bargain.

Violence in Iowa

Some unionizing efforts met with violence during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Armed vigilantes blocked the streets of Estherville to prevent union members from entering the town to speak with workers employed at a packinghouse. When employers in Newton and Sioux City appealed to the governor, he responded favorably by sending out the National Guard.

World War II

The outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1939 brought about an end to the Great Depression in the United States. The nation turned its energies to war production. By the end of 1942 the United States began to experience a shortage of workers.

In places where workers had established unions before and during the war, unionized workers often made gains in the 1940s. They fought for better and safer workplaces and wage increases. By 1945 over 25 percent of the U.S. labor force was enrolled in trade unions.

The war's end in August 1945 brought an abrupt end to military orders for manufactured goods. In Iowa thousands of workers who had been employed in huge ordnance plants in Burlington and Des Moines became unemployed.

The 1950s

In the early 1950s unions worked to increase fringe benefits for workers. These include pension systems, hospitalization plans, severance pay and maternity benefits. In 1955 the once rival AFL and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) combined to become the AFL-CIO. In 1956 the Iowa State Federation of Labor and the Iowa State Industrial Union Council met in a convention in Des Moines. They formed the Iowa Federation of Labor. Iowa was the third state in which the two major labor bodies merged.

Unions and Politics

Since World War II American unions have played an increasingly important role in the political process. Organized labor has impacted political elections and the passage of laws. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 outlawed differences in wages based on sex. President Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a section of which barred discrimination in hiring. In 1970 President Richard M. Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). This established the right of government inspectors to enter workplaces to inspect conditions.

In the 1970s federal legislation made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person's age. It also provided that individuals with handicaps be granted "reasonable accommodations" and not be refused employment.

State legislatures passed new laws to protect the rights of workers also. Labor organizations in Iowa worked to strengthen state laws governing workers' compensation and unemployment benefits. The Iowa labor movement worked to eliminate laws that made it difficult for people to register to vote.

From the 1950s through the 1970s the Iowa Federation of Labor supported efforts to reapportion—or reorganize—legislators in the state legislature so that all voters were more equally represented in the legislative process. Iowa labor representatives also fought for higher pay for teachers.

The working conditions in Iowa's businesses, factories and government offices have improved greatly over the years. The eight-hour work day, equal pay and accommodations for differences have all contributed to a better way of life for Iowa's workers. Labor unions can claim credit for many of the changes that have occurred.


Labor unions can claim credit for many of the changes that have occurred for Iowa's workers.

Media Artifacts

Reading Tip: Reading for Meaning
How is the information organized? Does it show a sequence of events? Is it about big ideas?