Stories of Work and Working Lives

When I was 15, I got my first “real” job as a bagger at a grocery store. I had worked before – Little League umpire, public pool concession stand – but this was my first job with a company, and the first time anyone mentioned a union to me. Filling out paperwork during my first day of training, the assistant manager asked me if I wanted to join the union. They told me how much it would cost and how little it would get me in return. I was a kid working 20 hours a week at most, and I didn’t need to give some of that money away.

Ten years later, I was working as a public school teacher. The union was strong in my district, and a fellow English teacher was the chief negotiator. I learned more about the true work of a union then, not the soft pitch from a disinterested manager. Now, as a graduate student and active union leader, I understand more the value of a union to a worker.

The history of labor organizing is a history of turmoil, battles, loss of life and livelihood. It’s also a history of individual and collective perseverance. Solidarity and Survival by Shelton Stromquist tells an oral history of labor organizing starting in the early 20th century.

Solidarity and Survival book cover
Solidarity and Survivial book, by Shelton Stromquist

In town after town, plant after plant, a handful of brave workers – many of them immigrants and women – took action against inequity and injustice in their jobs. They stood up against their employers during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce. They stood up against the powerful corporations that ran meatpacking plants, the Maytag factory in Newton, and other massive industries. People stood up against their own unions when they saw unfair treatment of women and workers of color.

The stories of individual sacrifice for collective good run all across the history of labor organizing in Iowa. I will be working with the Iowa Labor Oral History Project (ILHOP) to help these stories be heard. ILHOP has a collection of interviews spanning the last century of labor history in this state, beyond what Solidarity and Survival uses, that are a valuable educational tool. The history of labor is the history of Iowa, of the struggles Iowans have had to make a living and make a life. These are stories worth telling and worth hearing.