Labor archives are playing a central role in preserving working people’s history, supporting related research, and educating people about the importance of unions in shaping the political and social landscape in the US.
From its earliest days, the ILWU has understood the power of its own history in shaping and informing its actions and policies. When the union was less than a decade old, it established a library to preserve its records and also collect reference material useful to the union.
The union’s commitment to preserving its history has also helped it shape its story, to educate members and the general public about such key topics as the importance of the hiring hall, industry-wide contracts, and militant solidarity struggles.
The ILWU’s commitment to preserving labor’s legacy also extends to projects outside its hiring halls and offices. This can be seen in the union’s longstanding relationship with the University of Washington and its role in helping establish the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and supporting the newly opened Labor Archives of Washington State.
For nearly 20 years, the Bridges Center has been host to an increasing array of labor related programs, many designed in conjunction with members of the ILWU and the Puget Sound area labor movement. Begun with funding
and support from ILWU members looking for a lasting tribute to Harry Bridges, the Bridges Center’s programs include scholarships and research support to faculty and students that have helped expand understanding of labor history in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The Center’s website contains online resources that represent some of the best Internet sources on the history of the ILWU, labor, and civil rights, with emphasis on the Pacific Northwest.
The Center has also worked with the ILWU Library to digitize some of the union’s more delicate and valuable historical material to make it available online, including the Waterfront Worker, the important rank and file bulletin before and during the 1934 strike, and the charters for the Longshoremen’s Union of the Pacific, a union that predated the ILWU.
Last year, the work of the Bridges Center established the Labor Archives for Washington State (LAWS) in conjunction with the Special Collections Division of the University of Washington Libraries along with input from labor movement leaders and the ILWU. In 2009, both the ILWU International Convention and the Longshore Division Caucus passed resolutions in support of a new labor archives at the University of Washington.
The Longshore Caucus voted to contribute $150,000 in support of the archives and many ILWU locals and individual members dug into their pockets to provide additional donations, which helped make the project a reality.
It’s been over a year since LAWS hired fulltime archivist, Conor Casey, and officially opened its doors. The archive is a welcome addition to the world of labor history and is of particular importance to the ILWU.
The Organizing Committee for the Labor Archives of Washington State was filled with labor, academic, and community leaders. ILWU leaders and affiliates played a large role in this group, including Holly Hulscher and Conrad Spell from Local 23; Terri Mast of the Inlandboatmen’s Union; Ian Kennedy, pensioner and former President of Local 52; former IBU president David Freiboth; and former ILWU Librarian and Education Director Gene Vrana—and many now serve on the LAWS advisory board.
This partnership between labor and the University of Washington provides LAWS with the credentials to not only preserve labor history, but to serve a vital role in educating people about labor’s historical importance. In a short time, the archives has already hosted a number of events, including the Legacy of 1934 exhibit produced by the Coast Longshore Division.
One of the LAWS’s latest achievements is an online portal to digital items in its collection. This portal (http:// content.lib.washington.edu/lawsweb/) provides an excellent resource for students, union members, and the general public to access photographs, artwork, and documents related to Washington State Laborand beyond. It provides a glimpse into nearly 100 years of labor history via access to primary resources, such as fliers, photographs, and documents that come from the collections stored in the University of Washington libraries. The portal is an excellent place to start for those interested in learning from the past who cannot make a trip to the university library.
LAWS collects a variety of material and its collections stem from donations by individuals and organizations within the labor movement. The archives contain a wealth of records from locals and labor organizations that document the local, national and international dimensions of the labor movement with focus on the Pacific Northwest. The Washington State Labor Council and various county labor councils in Washington State have their records stored at LAWS.
Of particular interest to the ILWU, the archive has the records for the Inlandboatemen’s Union and ILWU Local 1-1, the first ILWU Local chartered in the state of Washington. A number of prominent ILWU members and supporters have also donated collections to the LAWS, including former Local 23 President Phil Lelli and Revels Cayton from the Marine Cooks and StewardsUnion.
The archives also have a significant collection of oral history interviews from participants in labor struggles throughout the years. Recently, the archives launched a project to digitize the records relating to the Inlandboatmen’s Union Region 37 and the United Cannery Workers. These collections will become an important part of the existing digital collections portal. The archive is also currently processing the records of Cindy and Silme Domingo and the records of the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. SilmeDomingo and Gene Viernes were both second generation Filipino-Americans, two courageous reformers who were murdered in their union hall in 1981 because of their efforts to rid their Local 37 of corruption and to build greater ties between the ILWU and a labor movement in the Philippines that was engaged in a struggle against the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The trial transcripts from the Domingo v. Marcos court case are being digitized and will be added to the digital collections portal in the future.
The archive actively collects historical artifacts and they are available to consult with organizations or individuals interested in donating historical material. One of Casey’s goals is to make collaborative strides with unions and individuals to enrich the Pacific Northwest’s labor heritage for future generations. He suggests records management strategies for labor organizations and provides information on how they can participate in the Labor Archives by donating their records.
He also facilitates workshops through the county labor councils to help organizations learn the best strategies for preserving their records. The LAWS website hosts a “How to Keep Union Records” section with handy guides for unions and members of the public to figure out how to manage their records, how to donate them, and which records to retain. Conor recently co-taught a “Basics of Archives” workshop through the Washington State Records Commission to give people a more detailed overview of what to consider when starting and managing an archive.
The ILWU’s partnership with the Bridges Center and the Labor Archives of Washington State provides a powerful tool for locals and individuals to preserve the union’s legacy. The relationship highlights the union’s ongoing commitment to its own history and the history of the labor movement in general. With the brutal attacks that the labor movement has seen in recent years, that history can serve as an important reminder of past struggles and achievements and a way of informing current and future leaders of the historical importance of a vibrant labor movement.
– Robin Walker,
ILWU Librarian and Archivist