June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Labor Exploitations and the Creation of Protections

3 min read

The Industrial Revolution in the United States started in earnest after the Embargo of 1807 (on British and French products) and the War of 1812, when American manufacturers began developing their own products. The revolution lasted 50 years (1820-1870).

In that span of time, inventions such as Elias Howe’s sewing machine and Samuel Morse’s telegraph were developed. River and road transportation made traveling easier while steam and electricity sped up manufacturing. Tariffs placed by the federal government protected the American industries.


However, this development caused two things: the flood of labor from the farms to the factories, and the exploitation of workers by manufacturers. Recognizing the strength in numbers, workers used collective bargaining to request benefits and rights from employers and the government. As a result, unions were made legal in 1842.

Workers Compensation in Iowa

The history of Iowa workers compensation is a better story than most. While the unions started the main drive for workers’ compensation in the mid-19th century, manufacturers joined the movement in the 20th century.

The first Iowan trade unions were started around 1850, by blacksmiths, coal miners, printers, and tailors. In other words, the initiators were mostly tradesmen and small entrepreneurs, with only a few representatives from employees.

It was the coal miners who started the first laborers’ union in Iowa, beginning a branch of the Knights of Labor in Des Moines in 1877. Only 11 years later, there were 188 local assemblies with 30,000 members total, with enough influence that the Iowa Legislature took notice of their requests and created a Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unions were derailed briefly by a series of railroad company failures in 1893. The first failure was of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in January, followed by a series of others and ending with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in December.


The intensity of the failures caused 500 banks to declare bankruptcy and 16,000 business establishments to close. The depression lasted until 1897. As unemployment rose abruptly, the unions wavered–without jobs, they had no leverage.

However, the trade unions banded together to form the Iowa State Federation of Labor, even as the Panic of 1893 hit. By 1900, they had a lobbyist in every General Assembly. The movement towards proper workers compensation grew when the manufacturers and employers stepped into the picture.

In 1903, the Iowa Manufacturer’s Association was created. Their search for insurance plans that both employers and employees could afford turned them into advocates of the workers’ compensation laws. After Wisconsin passed the first Workers’ Compensation Law in 1911, the Association, along with the unions, lobbied until its passage in Iowa in 1913, a decade after the Association’s formation.

The Workers’ Compensation Law enforced across-the-board Federal regulations on accident and sickness benefits. Workers who encountered sickness or disabilities during work could expect their medical treatments to be paid for, and to receive around ⅔ of their regular income while unable to work.

Eventually, compensation to the family of the victim was added in the event of their main breadwinner being disabled in a work-related injury. Coverage and benefits have been expanded since then, and continue to protect Iowan workers until today.