Iowa remains one of the states least friendly to labor organizing and worker power. But the cracks are starting to show.
Iowa workers filed 14 representation cases with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the 2022 fiscal year, an increase of 180% compared to the previous fiscal year, according to the Economic Policy Institute and the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center. (That means there were just eight cases filed the year prior.)
That puts Iowa 11th in the nation in terms of an increase in representation.
Not all of the case filings resulted in a new workers’ union. At Sabre Industries in Sioux City, just 57 voted for the union while 129 were against it when the election was conducted this spring.
Others prevailed, such as the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers at Grinnell College, which won with an overwhelming vote of 327-6, and the stagehands at Dubuque’s Five Flags Center, which won the right to representation 13-0.
Iowa seems to be following a trend of worker organizing, particularly led by younger workers, across the country.
Grinnell’s vote, for instance, was preparing “student workers to go out into the workforce and unionize those workplaces as well, and to know exactly how organizing works from ground-level up, and to go out into the world and to use what we’ve built,” said Keir Hichens, a junior at Grinnell who helped organize the independent union.
“It’s a part of a much larger wave that’s going on right now,” he added. “I think it’s very exciting.”
Iowa workers additionally filed 87 unfair labor practice charges against employers, an increase of 18% compared to the previous fiscal year.
Though that number is still behind the rest of the nation—Iowa is 36th in unfair labor practice charges at the NLRB—an increase in filings likely reflects “a confidence in the NLRB that may not have been there in previous administrations,” said Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor.
But it’s not just a more labor-friendly administration driving the numbers.
“People had just gone through a pretty traumatic work experience with the pandemic, supply chain shortages, and on and on,” Wishman said. “They are sick and tired of the way they are being treated at work.”
And though he noted Iowa’s laws and Republican legislators may be unfriendly to union organizing, Wishman said workers were done waiting around for permission.
“This legislature and this governor think they can legislate away a movement, but you can’t,” he said. “When workers stand together, they find out they can get what they need.”
What they need, sometimes, is a walkout to get their bosses’ attention. And that’s on the rise, too.
So far this year, there have been 376 labor actions in the US, according to Cornell University’s strike tracker, a nearly 40% increase in strikes over last year.
In Iowa, that includes a 33-day early spring strike at Eaton Corporation in Davenport and a 37-day strike at King’s Material in Cedar Rapids, plus ongoing strikes at Ingredion in Cedar Rapids and CNHi in Burlington.
“All they want to do is take, take, take,” said Chad Kinseth, a maintenance mechanic for 15 years at Ingredion, when the strike began in August. “And we’re not gonna take it, and I hope they understand that.”
by Amie Rivers
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. Find ISL on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.