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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Harris, Donald W.
(January 4, 1912–December 7, 1991)

–union organizer and labor leader—was born on a farm near Hurdsfield, North Dakota. With the collapse of wheat prices and crop failures, Harris's father and mother left farming and in 1923 moved the family to Des Moines. Because of his family's impoverished situation, Harris dropped out of high school in 1930 and went to work at Rollins Hosiery Mills. He later returned to Des Moines Lincoln High School and earned his diploma while working at Rollins. In the 1930s and 1940s Harris became an important union organizer and labor leader in Des Moines.

    Terrible working conditions motivated Harris and others in 1932 to try to organize a union at the Rollins plant. The workers, roughly two-thirds of them women, worked long hours. The day shift worked seven nine-hour days and the night shift six twelve-hour nights. Wages were low, and supervisors monitored workers' bathroom and drinking fountain breaks. Although Rollins fired Harris for his union activities, he managed to get back on its workforce. He and other union activists met secretly and garnered enough support to establish Branch No. 50 of the Federation of Hosiery Workers. Harris was the branch's first vice president and later became its president and then business agent.

    In the mid 1930s, under Harris's leadership, Branch No. 50 became a central source of support for other union organizing efforts in Des Moines. Its leadership could mobilize 200 to 300 union members to strengthen picket lines at other companies where workers sought union representation. That assistance bolstered organizing efforts at the Iowa Packing plant and Iowa Power and Light Company.

    While head of the Hosiery Workers local, Harris caught the eye of leadership in the Committee for Industrial Organization, predecessor of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had formed in 1935. In 1937 Van Bittner, who chaired the CIO's Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC), appointed Harris regional director for Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Harris organized those states' large number of packinghouse workers and tried to persuade independent local unions, which had emerged in some packing plants, to join the CIO. Later Harris became the PWOC's national director and expanded his activities throughout the United States.

    In April 1938 Harris was a key figure in establishing the Iowa-Nebraska States Industrial Union Council, becoming the organization's first president. The council's objectives included supporting industrial unionism, promoting labor legislation favorable to working people, expanding collective bargaining, and educating the public about the labor movement.

    In 1939 Bittner removed Harris and several other PWOC staff members because of Communist ties, disputes over organizing tactics, and issues of local versus centralized union control. Wanting to retain Harris's organizational skills, the CIO leadership appointed him regional director of several eastern states, including Connecticut, where Harris organized brass workers in Brass Valley.

    In 1943 Harris joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress, completing 33 missions over northern Europe. For his service, the army awarded Harris the Distinguished Flying Cross and the air medal with three oak clusters.

    After his discharge from the army, Harris rejoined the CIO staff and helped the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers of America (FE) organize factories in Charles City, Iowa, and Chicago. He left the CIO and, for a short time, worked for the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers' staff and lived in California. In 1948 Harris returned to Iowa as an organizer on the FE payroll. At FE, Harris advocated for the union's historic strategy of shop-floor control, short contracts, and strikes or job actions to enforce contract provisions. He also participated in FE's bitter and brutal contests against United Auto Workers (UAW) efforts to expand its jurisdiction beyond automobile plants and into Iowa's farm implement industry.

    At first holding its own against the UAW, the FE was eventually weakened by the larger union's campaign against it. Moreover, the CIO expelled the FE for its leadership's refusal to cooperate with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act's anti-Communist provisions. So, in 1950 FE merged with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the huge electrical industries union, which had severed its ties with the CIO over the latter's anti-Communist campaign. Harris became president of UE's District 8, which included Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa.

    Ironically, Harris ended his career working on the UAW staff, which he joined in 1956. Perhaps he accepted the victory of a union philosophy of long contracts, wage increases, and handsome benefits over the shop-floor control approach favored by the FE and UE. After 33 years in the labor movement, Harris retired from the UAW in 1966.
Sources For Harris's oral history interviews, see the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. Parts of the interviews appear in Shelton Stromquist, Solidarity and Survival: An Oral History of Iowa Labor in the Twentieth Century (1993). Harris's activities in packinghouse unions are mentioned in Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago's Packinghouses, 1904–1954 (1997); Roger Horo witz, " Negro and White Unite and Fight": A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meat-packing, 1930–1990 (1997); and Shelton Stromquist and Marvin Bergman, eds., Unionizing the Jungles: Labor and Community in Twentieth-Century Meatpacking (1997).
Contributor: Bruce Fehn

Cite as: Fehn, Bruce. "Harris, Donald W." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017