The labor strife in Muscatine was not unlike the labor strife across the nation at the time. On the river it was the boom of buttons, in Chicago the meat packing industry was strained, Pittsburg heard from the steel workers while the North East a unified voice arose from textile laborers. America, the land of opportunity, was pained in its’ growth. To capitalize on America’s resource opportunity, the necessary machines were created for production and installed. Soaring productivity resulted in the nation’s emergence on the global economic stage. In the midst of the boom, workers struggled with mechanization and suffered greatly as the industry evolved with production (not safety) in mind.
Muscatine’s button industry had seemingly grown by leaps and bounds over night; the high demand for pearl buttons meant men, women and even children (not uncommon for the time) could now find employment that previously had not been available. Hard working families would band together to gain access to employment, ensuring wages for the family. Excellence in craftmanship quickly created the gap that had to be addressed between supply and demand. In time, mechanization would replace the previous artisan style that had marked the industry but now soared.
Proximity played a role in Chicago’s manufacturing hub introducing unionizing to the large labor force in Muscatine as a resolution to labor strife. The notion of better working conditions and higher pay was not entirely opposed by the factory owners; however, the flames were fanned by a socialist mindset of some people. This group maintained that the workers should in fact be the proprietors rather than the current factory owners. Unregulated labor practices created opportunity for other opportunistic agendas, for example, manipulation of scales which directly affected workers wages.
To gain additional insight to the employees’ perspective, button companies worked together, sharing insight on worker demands. One local button factory’s management installed the phone booth (pictured here) outside the factory office. To facilitate privacy, the booth was designed with a double exterior wall. This wall was meant to protect those communicating in the booth with management ensuring they could not be heard by fellow employees or other management members not connected to worker concerns who may be nearby. Issues disclosed could vary from factory conditions to the health of a fellow worker.
Unrest in the button industry was documented as early as 1899-1900. Strife returned in late 1910 larger than before, represented were 1000’s of workers from all local factories. Organized meetings, strikes and factory closures resulted. In time, factory owners sought to hear the workers plea for improved conditions. From the east coast to the Midwest, the federal government heard a unified demand for labor reform. Iowa, still primarily rural, was slower as a government to react to the voice of the laborers. The governor of Iowa was eventually sent to server as a mediator between management and workers.
Unionizing efforts, combined with family owned manufacturing, improved conditions over time in Muscatine. Civil discourse produced work environment and system enhancements. Though not easy or always perfect, many button employees in Muscatine did find stability in their career in the button industry staying until retirement some 30 to 40 years later.