Getting Organized: Collective Bargaining's Past, Present and Future in Iowa

Jan 13, 2017

This week in his Condition of the State Address, Governor Terry Branstad signaled that he wants changes to laws that allow public employees collective bargaining rights. He said he'd like to see changes to health care plans available to state employees, which would mean rewriting the state's collective bargaining law for public employees. 

During this hour of River to River, we learn about the history of the labor movement in Iowa and how Iowa's collective bargaining laws became laws in the first place. John McKerly, a research associate with the University of Iowa's Labor Center, says organized labor started with strip mining. 

"There were coal mines stretching from Fort Dodge to Keokuk, and in the coal towns that dotted that region, there were a diverse array of Iowans that were brought from Wales to England to Scotland. They all came together through the United Mine Workers Union, which was the first that really organized on a mass scale here in Iowa," he says. "They were able to lobby for improved rights for workers and for improvements in their communities." 

Public employees in the state started to organize in the late 1960s, starting with teachers, some of whom were being forced out of their classrooms for things like being seen drinking wine at dinner at a restaurant or for being pregnant. 

"There were a whole series of strikes by public employees from the late 1960s into the late 1970s. That combined and put pressure on lawmakers to come up with a solution," McKerley explains. 

During this hour, we also hear the voices of Iowans who were part of the labor movement, which were recorded as part of the state's Iowa Labor Oral History Project. 

Michael Wagner, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin Madison also joins the conversation.