Happy Labor Day! These 12 images capture US labor history

(Credit: WTO History Collection/Labor Archives of Washington/U. Washington Libraries Special Collections)

The Labor Archives of Washington include thousands of images, documents, and records—from pre-WWII cannery workers posing in solidarity to the current campaign for the $15 minimum wage. Here’s a selection for Labor Day.

As the holiday approaches, Conor Casey, labor archivist at the University of Washington, chose a dozen images that represent the variety and impact of the archives. The images are below, with captions written by Casey—who also answers a few questions about the archives and their important work.

What is the formal mission of the labor archives?

“The Labor Archives of Washington was founded to collect, preserve, and create access to labor-related materials from individuals and organizations documenting the local, national, and international dimensions of the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest.

“The archives’ collections reveal the intersection between labor unions and social justice, civil rights, and political organizations that feature a labor relations or labor rights dimension as part of their focus.”

How extensive are the archives? How many items and categories?

“We have over 300 collection components, and about 3,000 cubic feet of materials—a cubic foot is about a copier paper box full of materials. We also have a lot of born-digital materials (meaning items that originated in digital form) including oral histories, curated websites, and born-digital collections.”

How do items come to the archives?

“People and organizations often contact us seeking advice about how or where to preserve their historical materials. I have built ongoing relationships that yield new collections, and I initiate connections with people or organizations that include new collecting areas.

“Everyone who works for a living today enjoys the results of these accomplishments, but their origins are often mystified or forgotten.”

“As a subject expert on labor history and related topics, I’m aware of trends of scholarship in academic study and in activism and issue-based organizings. I incorporate anticipated research value in those trends in how I seek out and appraise new collections, what I prioritize for processing, and what we emphasize in our outreach activities. We work closely with faculty, students, and researchers to understand how this history is being taught and what topics students are researching. This helps us set collecting, processing, and outreach goals.

“I also use my knowledge of those areas to identify gaps and areas where we can strengthen our collections. We have been doing that with collections documenting female labor leaders, union members and occupations, public sector unions, communities of color—especially Filipinx and Latinx communities, and LGBTQ communities. These supplement and complement our traditional collection strengths in records documenting organized labor, European American workers, and traditionally male-gendered occupations.”

What background in labor unions brought you to this work?

“I have labor history in my blood. I came to it from researching family history. My maternal grandfather was a longshore worker and union member, and my grandparents got married during the 1934 Pacific Coast Maritime Strike. My other grandfather was a union electrician, and both of my grandmothers were union workers when they were wage workers.

“My father was an elementary school teacher and union chapter leader before he retired, so I have an awareness and appreciation of the labor movement. I was raised in a working-class household in an ethnically diverse community, so I grew up with an inclusive vision of the need to honor and preserve the history of diverse communities.

“Having a job where I collect and preserve the stories of working people is an honor and a privilege. These people built our country. Their work has dignity and worth.

“This history records the achievements of working people and their organizations in improving wages, working conditions, health and safety, and on-the-job democracy. Everyone who works for a living today enjoys the results of these accomplishments, but their origins are often mystified or forgotten. People often aren’t taught about it in school.

“Long- and hard-fought achievements are not guaranteed to endure if we forget how they were won. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’

“There is no forward arrow of progress to time, no guarantee that all of these rights and privileges won’t be lost if current and future generations fail to remember and honor their history and protect these achievements for the future. As well, new modes of worker organizing are constantly arising, and being aware of those to ensure that we document evolving movements is an ongoing part of our work.”

The Special Collections area of University of Washington Libraries houses the collection. The archives are a collaborative project of the libraries with the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

Source: University of Washington