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Labor Struggles, Then and Now: Workers in One Iowa Town Epitomize the Past and Present of the Labor Movement

A dramatic and bitter labor conflict has played out in Muscatine, Iowa in recent years, though without the prominence or massive community support of a century ago.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Debbie Friedman via Flickr

 
 
 
 

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

 MUSCATINE, IOWA—Today the town of Muscatine, Iowa, which overlooks the Mississippi River, looks relatively inconspicuous—one of many working-class river towns with grassy parks abutting the flood-prone wide river, brick factories-turned-bars along the main street and ornate but peeling Victorian homes up on the hill.

But there are hints of Muscatine’s illustrious past: a riverside sculpture of a man in a flatboat with clams surrounding his feet, raising two shellfish rakes above his head; the word “buttons” emblazoned in chipped paint on some of the old brick structures. In its heyday, this area produced an astounding one third of the buttons sold worldwide—shiny, delicate “pearl” buttons produced from shells of the wealth of clams and mussels that once filled this stretch of the Mississippi, where a bend taking it east-west (rather than north-south) calmed the current enough to allow the shellfish to proliferate.

The local button industry was started in 1891 by an enterprising German immigrant, John Fredrick Boepple, skilled in making buttons from sea shells, who brought his manual-operated button press machine to Muscatine and launched a quickly mushrooming industry. Soon thousands of men were collecting shellfish from the river and its tributaries, and thousands of women and teenagers turned them into glistening buttons sewed onto decorative small cards with names like Mermaid and Blue Bird.

Pearl was the name for the shell interiors used to make the buttons, and it was also the name of a fiery young labor activist renowned in her time but relatively unknown in more recent decades. But she appears to be enjoying a resurgence of fame now.

Industry spy turned crusading organizer

Pearl McGill started working in the button factories as a teenager as a sort of spy for the industry, recruited by her uncle’s friend to see if workers were as “shiftless and lazy” as bosses suspected. More likely, many say, was that the company wanted her to report on union organizing activities. McGill was also trying to earn money to study to be a teacher.

Though her job was to report to the button industry power brokers, young Pearl soon found herself sympathizing more with the workers. Soon she was an activist and prominent member of the Women's Trade Union League and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helping to organize the button workers and also traveling around the heartland and the east coast to make speeches and play a key role in the famous textile workers strikes of 1912.

The Muscatine button workers battled with politicians and bosses, with strikes, violence and intrigue common. All the drama ended several decades later when much-cheaper, similar-looking plastic buttons became available. The pearl button industry basically died, except for small demand for vintage buttons for designer clothing.

(The industry's sharp decline was good news for native mussels and clams, which have been wiped out in many parts of the Mississippi River system, though efforts are underway to help restore them.)

A free museum in Muscatine pays homage to McGill—who did end up getting a scholarship to study teaching, from fellow union activist Helen Keller—and to the role of socialism and unions in the button industry and the workplaces of that time. On my visit to the museum last week, the author of a new book about McGill—along with one of McGill’s now-elderly relatives—happened to be there.

 
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