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Preserving Labor History in the Present, for the Future
If you want to learn something about the history of American labor, Wayne State University in Detroit is an excellent place to start. Its campus is home to the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, an archive that houses 80,000 linear feet of source materials relating to the development of the American labor movement. Among others, its collections include the historical records of the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union, and the Air Line Pilots Association.
With a new union boom and wave of strike actions sweeping the nation, organizers are beginning to engage these collections and think about preserving their work today to help write the labor histories of tomorrow.
“As people become more engaged in social movements, I think they start to look around for examples of what came before,” says Tobias Higbie, professor of history and labor studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This was true for museum workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), who voted to unionize in affiliation with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 47 (AFSCME DC 47) in August 2020. After two years of failed negotiations, union members voted to authorize a strike, which began this September.
Juliet Vinegra, project manager of the museum’s library and archives, says seeing images of former activists, artists, and museum workers involved in labor action was meaningful, even emotional, during the union’s strike. “It shows generations have been doing this work,” she says.
The strike lasted three weeks, until the union reached a contract agreement with the museum administration in mid-October. During that time, Vinegra and her colleagues began thinking about preserving their own history-making action.
“After hearing many union members comment on the value of documenting and saving these moments in a sort of archive, Tim Tiebout [a museum photographer] suggested we start one and gather a committee to make it happen,” says Vinegra.
Within a week of the contract agreement, the union’s executive board voted to create an archives committee to preserve the history of the union and the strike. Vinegra co-chairs the committee of eight with Emily Rice, a collections assistant in the European Painting and Sculpture department.
At its first meeting, the archives committee tackled practical questions: Where will the archive be held? Who will access it, and how? What is the committee going to collect and preserve?
Organizing a union and going on strike generates a lot of documents, social media content, photographs, and other material items, like signs, stencils, and buttons, which archivists call “ephemera.” Deciding what to preserve and how to store it is essential to developing a valuable and accessible collection.
Daniel Goldener, the archivist responsible for the American Federation of Teachers collection at the Reuther Library, says archivists make these difficult decisions in accordance with legal guidelines and by determining the historical value of items. “What we’re looking for is [items that show] how the union grew or didn’t grow, where it failed in organizing, or its accomplishments in organizing,” he says.
Documents like press releases, planning documents, minutes of meetings, and collective bargaining agreements are preserved because they contain critical details about the inner workings of the union or organization. On the other hand, documents that serve an administrative purpose that wanes over time, like most financial records, are not usually preserved beyond their utility.
The PMA Union archive, whose physical items will be stored at the headquarters of AFSCME DC 47 in Philadelphia, will hold the usual documents and unique ephemera collected during the historic strike. Vinegra says some of her favorite items are a collection of what she calls “love letters,” uplifting notes written by supporters on brightly colored index cards and distributed during the strike. Each morning, she would photograph one of the cards and send it around to strike captains.
Rice says the archives committee has also discussed collecting oral histories, meaning recorded interviews with strike captains or other union members, which will detail their personal experiences of the events. “I think that those have the potential to be very interesting and important documentation, and I think we’ll learn a lot from them,” she says.
In the short term, the PMA Union Archives Committee hopes its archive will be useful to other organizers. “This could help other people get started on unionizing,” says Vinegra. The committee is keeping this in mind as it decides how to organize its materials. “We want to do it in phases, almost like providing materials for a toolkit for people to use.”
Aliqae Geraci, director of the Reuther Library, says usefulness and accessibility are always priorities when processing an archival collection. There are several ways archivists make a collection legible to researchers, including adding labels and item descriptions, populating items in a searchable catalog, and developing a “finding aid,” a document that describes the collection and helps users navigate it.
But accessibility goes beyond just making a collection coherent to researchers. History can be inaccessible to those outside the historical profession, because most people don’t know where or how to look for it. Geraci says archives can also be intimidating. “That’s where the human touch and the role of the archivist in mediating access is so important,” she says.
The Reuther Library makes great efforts to engage with communities outside the historical profession and the boundaries of the university. The team tables at local events, including labor-related events, heritage festivals, summer fairs, and Motor City Pride.
The Reuther Library archivists also offer customized information sessions or courses for interested groups, host workshops for the general public, and lead personalized tours for union members interested in learning about their own union’s collection. “When we give tours, we tell them, ‘This is your history. We care for it, and we’re so proud to do that. But this belongs to you,’” says Geraci.
Because the Reuther Library team makes collections as accessible as possible, they get a diverse group of researchers, including organizers and activists, in the reading room. “The lessons of yesterday inform the campaigns of today,” says Geraci. “Whether it’s learning about techniques … or utilizing some of the records to build excitement, fervor, inspiration over the course of a campaign—there’s definitely a worker education element to maintaining historical records.”
Besides providing a toolkit and inspiration for today’s organizers, labor-related archival collections provide critical historical context about the labor movement. They help us understand and narrate stories about what the labor movement looked like at certain points in history, where it is now, and where it might be going.
Higbie says archivists today cannot tailor collections for future historians, because there’s no way to know what future historians will be looking for and writing about. But archivists can help shape history by ensuring collections are diverse and reflect workers’ voices.
“There’s an old adage that the winners write the history,” says Higbie. “One of the reasons why the victors write the history is because they collect the archives.”
Sometimes, documents with historical value simply haven’t been preserved and may never be recovered. “Many of the participants in the grassroots movements of the ’60s and ’70s didn’t have the resources to preserve their own personal papers, and so the nuance of the archive is not necessarily collected,” explains Higbie.
Other times, labor historians can use unexpected collections to piece together labor histories. They often use corporate archives, for example. But the experiences of workers represented in those collections are limited, because corporate archives reflect the interests of the corporation. “As you can imagine, the employer doesn’t necessarily want to know, might not care, or might want to get rid of evidence of independent working-class organizing,” explains Higbie.
To find the labor movement in these collections, historians must read against the grain, looking past dominant narratives about the growth or evolution of the corporation and instead scrutinizing silences or contradictions in the documents to reveal alternative histories.
When organizers come together to preserve their documents and ephemera, they are doing what they can to give future historians a more nuanced view of the labor movement at this point in time. They are doing people’s history, and they know it. “This is necessary,” reads the PMA union’s statement on the creation of its Archives Committee. “We’ve seen how easily the wealthy and powerful rewrite history, glorify themselves and erase working people.”
Those working on archives, such as the one the PMA Union is building or those held at the Reuther Library, believe that, from these collections, today’s workers can learn practical organizing strategies and draw inspiration, and tomorrow’s historians can tell more nuanced, detailed, and diverse stories.
Higbie says these collections and the stories they hold also have significant implications for the evolution of today’s re-emerging labor movement, as they help workers see themselves as historical actors and parts of a collective. “Having these archives, telling these stories, on the one hand, just preserves something that was important from the past, a voice from the past that otherwise would be lost and deprive us of the richness of our society,” he says. “But it is also a resource for people to see themselves in the story of the past, present, and future.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 8:260 a.m. PST on Dec. 21, 2022 to correct the main photo caption, which misidentified the date and location of the image. Read our corrections policy here.
Marianne Dhenin is a YES! Media contributing writer. She covers social and environmental justice and politics.