Politics & Government

State's labor history in archive

SEATTLE - Washington state has a strong and colorful labor history. The early stories of citywide strikes and massive parades on Labor Day won't disappear with the passage of time, since the state's labor history is being stored in the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

The labor archive is a collection of letters, meeting minutes, rally posters, newspaper stories and photographs. Altogether, it’s a day-by-day record of the business of running a union.

Libraries are full of letters and documents from powerful politicians and captains of industry. In making space for union records, “this is a way to tell the story of everyday people,” Blynne Olivieri, the Pacific Northwest curator of the UW’s Special Collections, told The Seattle Times.

Local labor leaders have given the UW money to grow and organize its already robust collection and pay for an archivist. The university also is working with local unions to gather more material.

“You can’t understand, in any kind of detail, what has happened in the past, unless the past survives in terms of its articles, records, photographs and documents,” said UW history professor James Gregory, who writes and lectures about the history of labor movements and civil rights.

He says the archive is already a treasure trove of information for students and researchers. Its collection from the radical International Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, is the best in the country.

Rick Bender, president of the Washington state Labor Council describes the early history of unions as a radical and sometimes violent time.

“Many gave up their lives to be part of a union in those days,” Bender said, adding that unions also were responsible for helping to pass safety and health laws, set shorter working hours, create holidays and provide workers’ compensation and health care.

Gregory said early labor leaders played a key role in Washington’s rise to statehood and the writing of its constitution.

At one point, about 35 percent of Washington workers were unionized, Bender said.

When Gregory heard stories about unions tossing files in the Dumpster, he and others knew something had to be done to keep history from ending up in the landfill.

“This is the thing that haunts us,” said Gregory, who holds the only endowed chair in the country named after a famous labor leader, longshoreman Harry Bridges. “If it isn’t preserved, it can never be known.”