Iowa’s modern political reputation is that of moderate, retail politics.[1] From a certain historical perspective, this reputation makes a lot of sense.

Iowa is a farm state. Farming, and the rural lifestyle that comes along with it, was historically an escape from the uprooting, alienating experience of industrial labor.[2] As the western world industrialized, new farming technologies and privatization of land made the traditional medieval way of life — small-time subsistence farming — superfluous. Those who no longer had fields and livestock to tend made their way to the city, competing with other dispossessed people to work in grueling factory jobs. No matter how long or hard they worked, they earned a fixed wage while the owners of the factory took the profits. The solution to this was new farmable land, something America and specifically Iowa had in spades.

Based on this description, it is easy to imagine Iowa as a place fully immunized against the radical working-class politics formed from urban workers’ fight for better wages and better lives. Even Populism, working class politics’ country cousin, did not take root in Iowa as it had in Kansas and Nebraska.[3] Iowa, then, seems a state either mired in or blessed with political stasis and stability. But upon closer inspection, the unsurprising truth comes out; these progressive trends in the greater American story have touched Iowa as well.

Much of Iowa’s early labor history comes from towns on the Mississippi River. “Unlike much of the rest of Iowa, [one such river town, Dubuque], developed a character forged by its expanding industrialism, its comparatively large working class, and its early experience with trade unionism.”[4] In the mid-1800s, Dubuque experienced “rapid population growth accompanied by expanded business activity, increased mechanization, and enlarged labor forces.”[5] Dubuque attracted so many immigrants that it was designated a port of entry to the United States.[6] This was before any major federal labor law legislation had been passed; employers could often find a cause of action against employees who had taken no other action than to collectively seek higher wages.[7] The common law provided two lines of reasoning for this, both of which favor the interests of owners over the interests of workers. In some jurisdictions, “unionization was illegal per se.”[8] In others, such lawsuits were justified under the theory that the formation of unions constituted conspiracy to commit extorsion.[9] The second doctrine explicitly recognizes that labor-management disputes are a “zero-sum” negotiation, in which management is to be favored, making it somehow worse for unions than simple per se illegality.[10] This environment was tough on organized labor, to say the least.

But in Dubuque, unions organized around specific crafts still saw some success in the mid-1800s.[11] Those organizations, which did successfully get concessions from their employers, “limited their discussions to wage rates, work rules, and other ways of protecting their own exclusive membership.” However, this narrow craft unionism eventually gave way to more widespread and inclusive organizations; the Knights of Labor arrived in Dubuque in 1885.[12] The Knights were Dubuque’s (and much of America’s) “first mass labor movement.”[13] They went beyond the interests of those who shared their craft, attempting to forward the interests of generalized labor. Crucially (and possibly because of the larger membership enabled by going outside the craft union framework), they were not averse to political action. The Dubuque Knights of Labor “lobbied for labor legislation, endorsed candidates friendly to labor, and [even governed the city for a short period].”[14]

The years between 1890 and 1935 were a very unstable time for labor law nationally, in Iowa, and in Dubuque. 1890 marks the passing of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which provided companies with a new statutory justification for anti-union injunctions under the theory that combinations of employees were “restraint[s] of trade or commerce” just as much as combinations of employers were.[15] The Sherman Anti-Trust Act would be followed up by a number of other pieces of federal legislation, cementing labor law as an area of law governed by statute.[16] This period also contains some of America’s most notable and often most violent conflicts between labor and management.[17] Accordingly, Dubuque’s largest strike occurred in 1903, when “streetcar workers. . . initiated a strike and boycott that halted the city’s mass transit system for seven weeks.”[18] The workers ultimately lost the strike after management “imported, armed, and deputized strikebreakers from Chicago; secured a court injunction that restrained freedom of speech and peaceful protest; and threatened strikers with the menacing presence of the local police and state militia.”[19]

1935 is perhaps the single most important year in American labor law, due to the passing of the National Labor Relations Act. This statute governs the formation and scope of legal action of unions, even to this day. Hubinger Co., the first N.L.R.B. decision involving an Iowa company was handed down in 1937. It was a simple case, involving two unions which each claimed a majority of the workers at a plant in Keokuk, Iowa.[20] In 1935, the employees of the Hubinger company won a contract with their employer under the Hubinger Company Employees Representation Plan (a labor union).[21] Two years into that contract, another labor union, called the Corn Products Workers Union No. 1993, claimed that they represented the majority of workers at this plant, and they should therefore be the recognized union.[22] The Plan did not consent to a voluntary union election, so the Corn Products Workers Union called a strike.[23] Eventually a charge was filed, and the Board simply resolved the issue by holding an election, decided by a margin of 31 votes in favor of the Corn Products Workers Union.[24]

In the 1903 strike, an Iowa dispute between labor and management was settled through the threat of violence. Under the NLRA, the government adjudicated such struggles. What a difference just thirty-three years made! And while organized labor’s biggest actions in that thirty-three year period happened outside of the state, Iowa had a home-grown labor movement as well. The development of the labor movement and labor law do not belong only cities on the coasts and in the rust belt. Labor’s legal wins are both enjoyed by and generated by the heartland as well.


[1] Colin Woodard, Yes, Iowa Still Matters, Politico (Dec. 15 2015), [].

[2] See Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (1921) (ebook)(arguing that the America’s western frontier has helped relieve social and economic pressure by providing large amounts of “empty” land).

[3] Jeffrey Ostler, Why the Populist Party Was Strong in Kansas and Nebraska, but Weak in Iowa, 23 Western History Quarterly 451, 451 (1992).

[4] Ralph Scharnau, From Pioneer Days to the Dawn of Industrial Relations: The Emergence of the Working Class in Dubuque, 1833–1855, 70 Annals of Iowa 201, 224 (2011).

[5] Id. at 211.

[6] Id. at 212.

[7] Benjamin Levin, Criminal Labor Law, 37 Berkeley J. Emp. & Lab. L. 43, 51 (2016).

[8] Id. at 52.

[9] Id. at 53.

[10] Id.

[11] See Labor Movement, Encyclopedia Dubuque, [].

[12] Ralph Scharnau, Workers, Unions, and Workplaces in Dubuque, 1830-1990, 52 Annals of Iowa 50, 57 (1993).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] 15 U.S.C. §§ 1–38 (2018).

[16] See 15 U.S.C. §§ 12–27 (2018).

[17] See Labor Wars in the U.S., PBS (Describing a number of violent conflicts between labor and management, especially during the relevant period) []

[18] Scharnau, supra note 12, at 58

[19] Id.

[20] Hubinger Co., 004 NLRB 428, 431 (1937). The town of Keokuk is another town bordering the Mississippi, downriver from Dubuque and about 3 hours away by car.

[21] Id. at 432.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 430.

Friday, November 10, 2023