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1911 Strike

Within ten years of the button industrys launch in Muscatine, the first signs of labor issues erupted. Male shell cutters faced off against cutting shop owners beginning in July 1899. Disagreements centered around wages and costs associated with tools and saws for shell cutting.

Nine short strikes occurred in Muscatine between July 1899 and November 1900. The longest work stoppage lasted sixty-one days, but most lasted a week or less. All of these strikes were instigated by workers at individual factories not by the union.

By 1910 Muscatine button workers were ready to organize as a powerful force capable of confronting factory owners. Some workers had envisioned a union of 10,000 button workers from throughout the United States.

When Muscatine manufacturers announced a shutdown of 43 factories and cutting shops on February 25, 1911, the union saw this as a lockout to scare its members. Button company owners sited overproduction and lessening demand as their reasons behind the closure. The day after the shutdown, 800 union members met and, by March 1st, had organized picket lines outside of closed factories. The following weeks brought failed negotiations, increased frustrations, and growing union membership up to 2,300 people.

By April 1911, the Muscatine police had hired men from Chicago and St. Louis to help maintain order. Violence increased, and three companies of state militia were called to Muscatine. The town remained under martial law for four days. While the state militia cleared the streets of Muscatine and enforced curfews, Governor Carroll worked with button manufacturers and union representatives to bring about a peaceful resolution. At the end of May, the parties signed an agreement that all former employees would be re-instated with no discrimination against those belonging to the union. Incidents, however, continued into 1912.

The bitterness of the 1911 strike stayed with Muscatine residents for years to come. As the strike in Muscatine wound down, labor unrest continued throughout the United States. Many button workers remained union members, but the only strike to occur later was confined to a single factory.