A Work in PROGRESS

By Scharnau, Ralph | Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque), August 31, 2017 | Go to article overview

A Work in PROGRESS


Scharnau, Ralph, Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque)


Workers have played an essential role in the economic development of Dubuque. This short historical survey offers a collective profile of Dubuque wage-earners. It focuses on workers in the context of their employment and unionization patterns.

By the 1880s, Dubuque acquired a reputation as one of Iowa's leading industrial centers with a large working-class population and sturdy trade unions. Over the years, Dubuque has experienced the transforming impact of industrial enterprises. Leading local industries included lead mining, millwork, railroading, garment making, metals fabricating, meatpacking and heavy equipment manufacturing.

The early primacy of lead mining lasted until the late 1850s. With a combined workforce of about 3,000 by 1900, woodworking sites became the new symbol of Dubuque's prosperity. Another nearly 1,000 skilled workers found employment in more than a dozen metals-fabricating firms. Meanwhile, several hundred young women worked in clothing factories. But the railroads became the city's largest single employer, with the Milwaukee Shops counting nearly 2,000 employees in 1912.

Confronting low pay, long hours, arrogant bosses, job insecurity and exhausting work routines, wage earners founded unions. Dubuque Typographical Union No. 22, Iowa's oldest craft organization, was chartered in 1855. By the early 1880s, unions appeared among cigar makers, locomotive firemen and engineers, tailors and blacksmiths.

In the mid-1880s, the Knights of Labor launched the city's first mass labor movement by welcoming the unskilled, women, blacks and recent European immigrants to its ranks. The Knights started cooperative enterprises, founded a weekly labor paper and scored a stunning local election victory in 1887.

The period from 1890 to 1910 brought the rise of numerous trade unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, the organization of a city central body and considerable strike activity prompted by wage cuts. The first issue of a new union weekly newspaper that appeared in 1906 continues today as The Dubuque Leader.

The year 1903 was unique in Dubuque labor history. In that year, a weekly local paper, the Iowa Socialist, circulated in the city, estimates of unionization ran as high as two-thirds of the work force and a dramatic strike that lasted seven weeks occurred among streetcar workers. During the 1920s, organized labor suffered a series of setbacks distinguished by reduced membership, lost strikes and weakened unions.

When the Great Depression hit, the city's manufacturing industries employed nearly half of the labor population. Factory wages dropped by one-half, 2,200 jobs vanished and irregular employment and reduced hours became commonplace. One out of every five families received some sort of relief.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought a stunning array of policies and programs that protected workers and encouraged unions. Needy people received direct assistance. The unemployed got work on public projects, such as Eagle Point Park, the lock and dam, road construction and the federal building. Workers finally secured the right to organize and bargain collectively, and unionization reached three important local industries - meatpacking, metals fabricating and millwork. Passage of legislation creating Social Security and minimum wages and maximum hours directly benefited working class people.

The years from 1940 to 1980 brought unparalleled economic growth and union power. …

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