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Focus on a laboring ancestor today

The Legal Genealogist slept in this morning.

Tired from yesterday’s homeward travel that began with a 5:40 a.m. flight, and from the rigors of participating in the 40th annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies in Springfield, Illinois, I was delighted to be able to loll around until well after sunrise this morning.

Even though it’s a Monday.

Ordinarily a work day.

But not today.

Not here in the United States.

This day, this first Monday in September,1 is a holiday here in the United States:

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, to all intents and purposes …2

Today, we call it Labor Day — a day to celebrate the efforts of all those who came before us to give us amazing things like 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.

So how about we honor them today by spending a little bit of the extra research time we have today looking into the particular records of our particular ancestors who contributed to giving us today as a day off, and that extra research time as a result?

And where do we look for records of our labor union ancestors?

One of the best 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;3 the New York Union and Trades Advocate began publishing in 1865.4 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.

And, of course, you can look beyond newspapers to the vast array of archival material on the labor union movement itself. A search for the term “labor union” at ArchiveGrid, for example, turns up 21,942 hits ranging from the Paducah Central Labor Union in the special collections of the Murray State University library in Kentucky to the papers of maritime historian Harold H. Huycke at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Even making it an exact term search returns 3,913 hits:

• The Western Labor Union (Roll books (1900-1905) of Western Labor Union; together with roll books and minutes of the Silver Bow Trades and Labor Assembly; correspondence from American Labor Union; and AFL ephemera).

• The oral history collection at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library of a wide variety of people who played roles in trade-unionism in the United States.

• The Tish Sommers papers at San Diego State University, focusing on women’s movement activists from 1970 to 1985.

• The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Local 132, archives at the University of Maryland.

• The Militant Photographic Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Library and Archives.

And there are a number of overall collections that are simply not to be missed:

• 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. The library’s Labor History guide 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.

One more overall research guide is the Labor Archives of Washington, at the University of Washington Library, and for an overall reference list, make sure to review the Society of American Archivists’ Labor Archives in the United States and Canada: A Directory.

Happy Labor Day.


Image: American Federation of Labor Certificate of Affiliation, International Brotherhood of Teamsters; digital image, Teamsters Archives, Labor History Research Center at the Gelman Library, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

  1. And would somebody care to tell me just how it is that it’s already September? Where did this year go???
  2. “An Act Making Labor Day a legal holiday,” 28 Stat. 96 (28 June 1894).
  3. See “About The labor world. (Duluth, Minn.) 1896-current,” Library of Congress, Chronicling America ( : accessed 5 Sep 2016).
  4. See ibid., “About The Union and trades advocate. (New York (N.Y.)) 1865-18??.
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