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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Occupational Records by Beverly Rice, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
This is a simple heading for a very broad category, with thousands of different labor unions throughout the United States. Some of the smaller unions merged with larger unions, or two large union organizations formed into one, such as the merger of the AFL-CIO.
The labor movement in the United States had a significant influence on the quality of a workers wages, workplace safety and in general the rights of the worker. It will be important to understand the history of a specific union before beginning to search for records. There are many Internet sites and reference books on this subject, as well as university courses. I have included a small portion of the available sites for different unions. The Duke University site has links to over 40 different unions throughout the United States. The most effective method to locate a specific union is by using a search engine and then type in the name of the union in quotes, looking for the official union website and the archived records. There are also printed union directories available, you will need to check with your local library for access.
I would like to break down the “labor union” section into two parts, the individuals who worked in the development and operation of the union and the “dues paying members” of a specific union.
“Dues Paying Member”
A key point to remember is the union members were the workers, not management or supervisors.
As with any research of an individual’s occupation you must first know what union an individual belonged to, before you can proceed to search for available records. A union is usually directly related to the occupation, truck drivers belonged to the International Order of Teamsters, electricians joined the Brotherhood of Electrical Worker and so on. Check the location that the individual worked to determine what unions were active or contact the employer to determine if a union represented the worker. The company would know if the individual was a union member and what was the name of the union.
Along with being a member of a union the individual was more importantly working for a specific corporation or a small business. Thus the majority of the employment records related to occupations would be with the company not the union. The union would have records related to dues, strikes, employee/employer disputes, apprenticeship programs etc., not the employment files, (refer to researching technique of corporations).
The basic step will include:
- determine where the individual worked and if the company employed union workers
- determine if the individual was a union member
- locate the name of the union and the local
- learn the history of the union and the local
- locate the archives for this union and determine what type of records are available for research
Union Organizational Leaders
If you were researching an individual who was active with the labor movement either at the local or national union level, then the research would be directly in the union records. The individual would be an employee of the union; the union would be the employer.
The researcher would be looking for employment records just as if they were researching any other company. This will be similar to doing research in corporate records because the union organization functions as a corporation. The researcher will have to begin by understanding the labor union history, where the union records are archived and if there is public access to these records. Most of these records are not indexed or microfilmed.
The archived records could be kept at the local level or the national level. This could depend directly on the size of the local however it is not a given. Research the location of the records for your area before beginning your search. If the union does not keep the archived records then they might have been deposited with a library or archives. A NUCMC search will enable the researcher to locate these records in the manuscript collection throughout the United States.
The archived records if located and accessible will be very large and not necessarily indexed or for that matter even in date order. It will depend on what type of information you are seeking about a specific occupation. The researcher will need to determine if the time to completely access these records is worth the information needed to complete the research. Each case will be different.
Think of this search in terms of looking for a person in the 1930 New York census without an index, using a name by name search technique.
If the person was one of the “movers and shakers” of the union movement or a local “big wig”, then the possibility exists that a history or a biographical sketch has been completed on this individual. These histories could include information on the individual’s function within the organization, in other words their occupation. The correspondence files should also be searched with reference this individual. The correspondence usually concerns the day to day activities of the business, not personal information.
The employment records could also be available that would give information on the individual:
- job titles, and possibly job descriptions
- payroll records
- hire and termination dates
Do not get your hopes up to locate any corruption in these files. Most union employees were not corrupt they worked for the “dues paying members” not themselves. Of course there are exceptions.
Cornell University, as well as other libraries have in their collections union periodicals, from the current to the historical. These periodicals will offer an insight into the workings of a particular union, the union employees and the union members. For best results the researcher will need to know the name of the periodical for the union before they begin the search.
Ralph W. Steen Library - Nacogdoches, Texas
A Curriculum of United States Labor History for Teachers, Sponsored by the Illinois Labor History Society
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Occupational Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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