Podcasting an Iowa Teacher Strike, 50 Years Later

The object of confrontation politics is to polarize the slack by the impossible precept that you are either for children or against them

Robert Leland, Keokuk School District Superintendent, 1970

When Iowa Republicans captured the state senate in the 2016 elections, they secured a Republican trifecta. With a Republican governor and majorities in the senate and house, the GOP targeted Iowa workers and their labor unions, introducing radical amendments to the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA). This 1974 law granted legal recognition of public sector unions — teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters, and other state, county, and school district workers — and established their rights to collectively bargain with their employers for a contract. When these proposed changes to PERA were signed into law by then governor Terry Brandstad, they eroded much of what Iowa workers had struggled for and won decades earlier. Iowa labor law now only requires employers to bargain with employees over base wages. As a result, negotiations over healthcare, workplace safety measures, grievance procedures, benefits, and staff reductions, have become difficult, especially at the state level.

In some respects, this is the inevitable outcome of the conservative party’s control over the legislative arena. And yet, the 1974 bill, ostensibly a piece of pro-labor legislation, was passed under very similar circumstances, at least from a distance. In that year, Republicans also held absolute control with Republican Governor Robert Ray and GOP majorities in the house and senate. How did political attitudes toward Iowa laborers change over those decades? And what accounts for the difference? An audio project at the University of Iowa examines this complicated set of questions — and many others — by centering the voices of public sector workers in Iowa.

Speaking of Work is a podcast about the struggles — past and present — of Iowa workers and the first season of the show seeks to narrate this history from the perspective of those who lived through that period. The project is spearheaded by John McKerley, Oral Historian for the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP), which is part of the Iowa Labor Center and a collaboration between UI Libraries, the Iowa Federation of Labor, the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Labor History Society. The ILHOP archives include the history of public sector workers in Iowa: oral history interviews with legislators, organizers, and most especially, workers. These interviews are the foundation for this audio documentary project that conveys that era’s social, political, and legal history through the story of one of the few teacher strikes in Iowa’s recent history. In doing so, perhaps it will help Iowa workers best identify the conditions of possibility for worker rights in this new era. 

The struggle that helped jumpstart Iowa’s movement for public sector collective bargaining began more than 150 miles away from the statehouse in Des Moines. It started in Keokuk, Iowa, a small, industrial town on the Mississippi River in Southeast Iowa where Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois meet. In 1970, teachers went on strike, defied an injunction, and were jailed before ultimately winning a contract. This is the starting point for the first season of Speaking of Work.

Before the strike, Keokuk, Iowa, was renowned for having one of the best school districts in the state. In the 1950s and 60s, local officials in Keokuk invested heavily in their schools to attract businesses fleeing larger midwestern cities like Chicago after World War Two. Keokuk schools recruited teachers with advanced degrees and paid for teachers to get MAs and PhDs in some instances. Teacher salaries were based on years of experience and education. But by the end of the 60s, Keokuk was in the early stages of deindustrialization, and the school board and new superintendent, Robert Leland, whose quote opens this blog post, were set on cutting costs. In this instance, cutting costs meant slashing teacher salaries. In 1969, the school board proposed a radically new salary system. Under this contract proposal, after ten years of service and incremental raises in pay, teacher salaries would remain flat for 15 years. And after 25 years, teacher salaries would decrease, flatlining at year 40. The school board called it a “career productivity modification,” but the highly educated veteran teachers in Keokuk called it, among other things, “the Rainbow schedule.” 

The “Rainbow” Schedule, as found in Morris D. Wilson, “The Keokuk Teachers Strike: A Case History,” PhD Diss. University of Iowa, 1972.

Keokuk teachers organized themselves into the Keokuk Education Association and, indignant about the board’s proposal, made a counteroffer. Their demands came from a survey of teachers about areas they would like to see change. Although they wanted to maintain the old pay system, salary was not at the top of their demands. Teachers wanted a more significant say in how and when they worked: setting the school calendar and more input in the curriculum — what McKerley refers to in the series as “the how and what of teaching.” Among their demands were matters related to instructional quality and the services extended to students, like having more nurses, speech therapists, and school psychologists. They also wanted to check the arbitrary power of administrators and the sexist regime that allowed for men, but not women, to accrue supplemental pay. 

An arbitrator who was brought in to mediate the negotiations found the rainbow pay schedule harsh and recommended a new plan. But there was no legal mechanism that bound either the school board or the teachers to accept an arbitrator’s suggestion. The school board stood firm, vetoing the arbitrator’s proposal.  

Keokuk teachers began to mobilize the community behind their efforts — organizing and finding allies among local religious leaders, community networks, and the larger Keokuk labor movement. When Keokuk teachers voted to go on strike, they had the support of their community. When teachers walked out, the custodial staff, whose contract negotiations had also stalled, joined the strike. 

The interviews from the ILHOP archive speak to the political climate of this moment. There was generalized anxiety among some Iowa politicians that unless labor law for public employees was introduced, there would be increasing labor unrest among teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public sector workers. Some Iowa legislators in these interviews even refer to the necessity of introducing public sector collective bargaining as a means to “take the fuse out of the bomb” as school teachers became increasingly politicized over their working conditions. In 1971, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) joined in coalition with leaders and lobbyists from the AFL-CIO and sympathetic legislators to broker a deal on public sector collective bargaining. 

Ultimately, public sector collective bargaining was passed (PERA) in 1974 under a Republican majority and took effect the following year. The deal was a compromise: public employers had to recognize labor unions and their right to bargain for a contract collectively. Negotiations would be limited to a laundry list of topics like wages, benefits, workplace safety, and vacation instead of the more general language of “terms and conditions of employment.” In the event of an impasse in negotiations, the two parties would submit their final contract proposals, and an arbitrator would be tasked with picking “the most reasonable” one. The arbitrator’s decision would be binding. This mechanism forced both parties toward “the middle,” punishing the party with the most excessive demands. Lastly, there would be a firm no-strike clause with substantial penalties and fines for anyone who did go on strike. 

For the architects of PERA, the bill was a success. It granted public employees the right to have a say in their workplace by extending to them the security of collective bargaining — one of the linchpins of the New Deal state. It also tamped down on current and ensuing labor unrest: Keokuk was the first Iowa teacher strike in decades, and public sector workers have seldom gone on strike since the passage of PERA. 

Fast forward 40 years and the 2017 amendments to PERA virtually gutted the original bill, leaving public-sector unions with only the ability to bargain over base wages with the no-strike clause still in place. As Iowa workers and the labor movement strategize how to take back what they had won a generation ago, the time seems ripe to revisit the period leading up to the original bill.

PERA helped make substantial gains for working people in Iowa, as collective bargaining has meant slow, gradual improvements in pay and working conditions for many. However, one of the bill’s aims was labor peace — and the bill effectively disciplined labor by offering some semblance of security. The 1974 law masterfully conceded some rights to workers while contributing to the demobilization of the movement that helped to bring this issue to the political fore in the first instance. Labor unions continued to aggressively fight on behalf of their members in the courts and legislature — challenging the PERA’s limited scope of bargaining. But the kind of vibrant, workplace militancy displayed in Keokuk was less prominent.

Despite the benefits PERA conferred to public sector workers over the years, now that it is effectively gutted of any overture that working people might consent to, leaving only the skeleton of the coercive no-strike clause, it is worth considering its legacy. What happens after 50 years of labor peace? What sort of generational knowledge about strikes and what they’ve won for the working-class disappears when there hasn’t been one in decades? When you’ve never seen a picket line, how do you know not to cross one? 

The story of Keokuk teachers is prescient today, as teachers across the country are energized with visions of working-class struggle broader than contract negotiations over wages. [1] Keokuk teachers demanded dignified wages and asserted their creative capacity to labor and a better learning environment for their students, a struggle that they successfully recruited their community to join. 

Public sector workers have been confined to stricter labor laws than those in the private sector, with no-strike clauses because they often provide what are deemed “essential services.” The rhetoric of “essential workers” at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic awarded symbolic respect to hospital and transit workers, those who labor in meatpacking warehouses, grocery store clerks, teachers, and many others. Yet, the phrase also became justification for placing already exploited workers in dangerous working conditions. [2] Work essential to the reproduction of our lives — such as teaching and caring for children — provides an immediate and visible connection to a community broader than the one confined by the workplace. This connection was one Keokuk School Superintendent Robert Leland sought to exploit by polarizing the public “by the impossible precept that you are either for children or against them.” Keokuk teachers were keenly aware of this insight, which is why before they voted to go on strike, they secured the support of the community to whom their work was essential.

[1] The Chicago Teachers Union representing Chicago Public School teachers and SEIU 73 representing school support staff went on strike in October, 2019, documented here in this New York Times piece. This article in The Nation outlines union demands beyond wages, including “sanctuary schools for immigrants, and restorative justice practices to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Most important, they made the strike a referendum on housing in Chicago by demanding landmark resources for homeless students and refusing to back down when the mayor and her allies argued that such issues had no place at the bargaining table.”

[2] This Op-Ed featured in a September issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette highlights the conditions of food processing and service workers in Iowa during the pandemic.

All previous and forthcoming installments of Speaking of Work can be found here: https://www.iowalaborhistory.org/speaking-of-work-podcast

More information about the Iowa Labor History Oral Project can be found at their website, or at the Iowa Labor Center. The entire archive of oral histories of Iowa labor are hosted by the State Historical Society and UI Libraries.

Special thanks to John McKerley at the Iowa Labor History Oral Project for his mentorship this summer, and to Laura Perry, whose generous feedback helped to shape this piece.

blog, Interns