Iowa: Statewide Strike for the Eight-hour Day, 1891

Iowa: Statewide Strike for the Eight-hour Day, 1891

Description of the 1891 miner's strikes for the eight-hour day in Iowa. From underground newspaper Free Flowing (February 1977), published out of Ames, Des Moines and Iowa City.

"Labor is the creator of all wealth," argued one What Cheer miner during the 1891 statewide strike for the eight-hour day. "They rob us while producing their wealth." The anonymous miner had a good deal of evidence to back up his claim of robery. Iowa miners suffered from the exploitation of the company store, from being paid only once a month, from competition with contract and child labor, from inadequte ventilation in the mines and other safety hazards, from company housing which was among the worst in the Midwest, and from the use of the blacklist by the coal operators. (John L. Lewis' father was blacklisted at Lucas in 1882; though the blacklist was supposably outlawed in 1888, it was not until 1897 that he was able to return to the mines.)

Perhaps the most common complaint was that the companies would not pay the miners for all the coal they produced; miners recieved money only for that coal which did not pass through a screen, although the companies sold all the coal.

With these complaints, and the promise of an eight-hour day, the Iowa miners proved easy to organize. In 1890, the Knights of Labor and A.F.L. mining unions merged to form the United Mine Workers of America, and promised to participate in Gompers' campaign for an eight-hour day. But other strikes and a low level of unionization among miners nationally meant that the UMW had to break its pledge. The situation was different in Iowa; state organizing had been fruitful and Iowa miners expected a strike. On May Day 1891, about 90% of Iowa's 10,000 miners walked off their jobs.

Led by Walter Scott of Mystic, who was nominated Lt. Governor by the People's Party while the strike was in progress, most miners held out for over two months. The strike was broken by importing strikebreakers from the South. When the first strikebreakers arrived in Mystic, they were unaware of the strike and were persauded to return home when they learned of it.

But soon armed guards prevented contact between strikers and strikebreakers, and in Mahaska and Appanoose Counties production resumed. Also contributing to the defeat of the strike at most mines was the importation of coal from nearby Illinois mines, and the desperate conditions of the miners and their families, some of whom were reduced to living on bread and water, since they no longer had credit at company stores.

Nonetheless, at Dunreath and Angus miners won an eight-hour day. Their contracts became the first eight-hour miners' contracts in the country. Speaking in defense of miners who lost their jobs as a result of the strike, Walter Scott asked, "What have the brave miners of Carbonado asked that they were not entitled to receive?" Put in more general terms, it was question that the working people of Iowa could ask for some time to come.

Sources: Iowa Bureau of Labor Statistics, local and union newspapers

Written by Bill Douglas