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  • The Threat to the University of Iowa Labor Center Is a Threat to Labor and Working-Class History
  • John W. McKerley (bio)

For over half a century, the University of Iowa (UI) Labor Center has played a central role in worker education, labor research, and the preservation, promotion, and teaching of labor and working-class history in Iowa and the Midwest. Founded in the 1950s, the center has developed critical links between the labor movement and academics, archivists, and educators across the state, becoming a focal point for numerous successful collaborations that enrich scholarship while directly improving the lives of Iowa workers.

Among the most celebrated of these collaborations is the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP). Initiated by leaders in the Iowa Federation of Labor during the 1970s, ILHOP has become a major university-community partnership and arguably the largest and longest-running labor-focused oral history project in the United States. Project staff have collected more than twelve hundred oral history interviews with workers from communities and occupations all over the state. Among the earliest interviews are those with coal miners whose childhood memories stretch back to the 1890s. Recent interviewees include teachers and other public-sector workers who led the fight for collective bargaining rights in the 1970s; veterans of Iowa's part in the P-9 strike of the 1980s; graduate employees who organized on the UI campus in the 1990s; and immigrants and refugees representing the latest waves of Midwestern packinghouse workers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Generations of continuing education students (more than two thousand of whom attend noncredit classes led by the center each year) and hundreds of UI undergraduate and graduate students have been exposed to firsthand accounts of Iowa's labor history via classes and research projects drawing directly on ILHOP interviews. Scores of dissertations, articles, and monographs have drawn on the collection. A 2017 UI Mobile Museum exhibit featuring Iowa labor history highlights captured in ILHOP interviews drew thirty-five thousand visitors across the state. [End Page 33]

A series of recent federal grants has made the ever-growing collection more accessible and useful than ever through digitization of all existing analog recordings and transcriptions. In 2018, the Labor Center won a two-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to complete transcription and indexing of interviews and to develop an expandable digital ILHOP index covering the entire collection through UI's Iowa Digital Library ( /ilhop). In recognition of this work, past and present, ILHOP and its partners at the State Historical Society of Iowa received the 2018 John Sessions Memorial Award from the American Library Association. The award recognizes "a library or library system which has made a significant effort to work with the labor community and by doing so has brought recognition to the history and contribution of the labor movement to the development of the United States."

In recent years, the Labor Center has continued to advance its commitment to publicly engaged labor and working-class history in new ways. In 2016, the center served as a key founding partner in the new Iowa Labor History Society (ILHS). Now with more than one hundred individual and institutional members, ILHS brings together workers, historians, archivists, and educators from all corners of the state. The center and society have hosted two successful public conferences and two Iowa labor history bus tours. In June ILHS, with the support of the Labor Center, won a grant from Humanities Iowa (the state affiliate of the NEH) to develop a new traveling exhibit based on ILHOP interviews that will tour the state. Likewise, the center and ILHS are working in partnership with faculty from other colleges and universities across the state to develop Iowa labor history curricular materials that meet new state standards for Iowa history in K-12 classrooms. In May 2018, the center cosponsored the Midwest Labor and Working-Class History Colloquium, a LAW-CHA-supported gathering to advance graduate education in the field.

Now all of these activities are under threat. In July, the University of Iowa announced its intent to eliminate all university funding for the center (and lay off...


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