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A day for research

Hard to believe it is Labor Day already! Where has 2014 gone? Kids back in school, days growing shorter… fall is right around the corner.

As genealogists, we may all appreciate Labor Day as a day off from work, a day when we can do a little extra research.

LaborThe Legal Genealogist proposes that we spend that extra research time looking into the particular records of our particular ancestors who contributed to giving us that day off, and that research time.

Our labor union ancestors.

A century and more ago, we wouldn’t have had today off. We wouldn’t have had eight-hour work days, 40-hour weeks, paid vacations, employee health benefits, worker safety laws, compensation for on-the-job injuries or any of the other myriad benefits we think of today as perfectly ordinary and routine.

Each of these was fought for by our working ancestors and the unions they formed to stand up to big business. They fought for them, and sometimes died for them.

Labor Day itself began with a “parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.” The New York Central Labor Union passed a resolution calling for the general holiday:

At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came –- 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.1

It first became a governmental holiday in Oregon by a state statute enacted 21 February 1887, and four other states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — passed similar laws by the end of 1887.2 It became a federal holiday in 1894: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday…”3

So… how do we research our labor union ancestors? One of the biggest reference sources for labor union research is the vast assortment of union newspapers published over the years. The Duluth (Minn.) Labor World, for example, began publication in 1896;4 the New York Union and Trades Advocate began publishing in 1865.5 Information about these and many other union newspapers is available through the Library of Congress’ historic American newspaper collection Chronicling America.

If you go to the site’s U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present, you can opt for only labor press newspapers in the “More search options” section at the bottom, and limit the results to just the publications that focused on the labor movement.

But there are so many other possibilities for researching union ancestors! Many collections of union documents exist in repositories all around the United States and beyond. Most are not digitized and so require a field trip — but oh… the information that exists… it’s stunning.

Just a few of the resources for union research include:

• The Manuscripts and Records Collections of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit. Its holding include everything from microfilmed copies of record of the AFL-CIO to microfilms of the Western Federation of Miners Records from the Idaho State Historical Library, plus many many union newspapers. Online galleries of images focusing on the labor movement and organizations offer more than 3,600 images.

• The George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archives at the University of Maryland Libraries. Transferred to the University from the National Labor College in 2013, the collection includes roughly 40 million documents, photographs and records. Individual parts of the collection may not be reopened quite yet, but much of the collection is now available.

• The National Women’s Trade Union League of America records held by the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Some 7400 items including correspondence, reports, speeches and biographical information on the league’s officers are included.

• The Southern Labor Archives of the Georgia State University Library, which is “dedicated to collecting, preserving and making available the documentary heritage of Southern workers and their unions, as well as that of workers and unions having an historic relationship to the region.”

• The Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives of NYU’s Tamiment Library, a joint project with the New York City Central Labor Council, focuses on New York City labor history. Its Labor Links page provides more tips for labor history research.

• The Wirtz Labor Library of the U.S. Department of Labor documents the history of the labor movement and labor unions in the United States. Among other things, the library holds more than 3000 labor journals and newspapers.

• The Teamsters Archives at the Labor History Research Center at the Gelman Library of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., holds IBT publications, convention proceedings, documentary materials from the various IBT departments, trade divisions and area conferences, photographs, films, and video/audio tape reels and cassettes. A major initiative to digitize IBT’s microfilmed records from 1904 to 1994 is underway.

• The Labor and Labor Unions Collection at the Toledo (Ohio) Public Library has a variety of documents on the labor movement in that area from the 1890s forward. A PDF inventory of the holdings is available online.

• The Special Collections of the University of Colorado at Boulder Library contain hundreds of boxes of records of the Denver Typographical Union #49 starting in 1864; the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA) Local #55 starting in 1886; the Western Federation of Miners from 1893l and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers from 1934.

• The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University in New York, has as its “continuing purpose … the preservation of original source materials relevant to the history of American labor unions, management theory as it applies to labor and industrial relations, and the history of employees at the workplace.”

And for an overall reference list, make sure to get the Society of American Archivists’ Labor Archives in the United States and Canada: A Directory, available as a PDF download.

Happy Labor Day.


  1. DOL’s Historian on the History of Labor Day,” U.S. Department of Labor ( : accessed 31 Aug 2014).
  2. History of Labor Day,” U.S. Department of Labor ( : accessed 31 Aug 2014).
  3. “An Act Making Labor Day a legal holiday,” 28 Stat. 96 (28 June 1894).
  4. See “About The labor world. (Duluth, Minn.) 1896-current,” Library of Congress, Chronicling America ( : accessed 31 Aug 2014).
  5. See “About The Union and trades advocate. (New York (N.Y.)) 1865-18??,” Library of Congress, Chronicling America ( : accessed 31 Aug 2014).
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