Question of the Month
From the Catherwood Library reference librarians
PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.
Question: How can I find information about the labor union my parent or grandparent belonged to?
Answer: The Catherwood Library receives many requests from people who want help locating or finding out what happened to a parent’s or grandparent’s labor union. Sometimes, the requests come from people trying to locate a missing pension or disability benefit, but other times, the requesters just want information about an organization that was central to their relatives’ lives.
The first step in finding a labor union is to determine if it is still active. For most people, the easiest strategy is to do some web research. There are several union portals that provide links to union web sites, such as http://www.unions.org or http://www.thelaborsite.com. If you know that the union you are looking for was part of a larger organization, you can look for links to it from the federation or parent union. For instance, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win link to their unions from the "About Us" section of their web sites, and the Teamsters union provides a form to search for its locals at http://www.teamster.org/about/localunions/localunionsites.asp. The U. S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) provides a searchable database that is comprised of information reported to it by unions on “LM” reports. Search by Union from its Internet Public Disclosure Room at http://www.dol.gov/esa/regs/compliance/olms/rrlo/lmrda.htm. Electronic availability of these reports starts with 2000.
The OLMS should have information about all unions, whether active or inactive, starting in 1959. However, to obtain older LM reports, you will have to submit a request at https://cslxwep1.dol-esa.gov/Disclosure/OrderLM1234.jsp and there is a fee. Before you do that, you will want to have more information about the union, such as when it was active and its official name, which means you will probably have to do more research!
If you cannot find a current web page or a listing with the OLMS, it could mean that the union no longer exists, at least as it did at one time. Labor unions are dynamic organizations that continually undergo changes. Sometimes, unions merge with other unions to gain strength. Internal union disputes may cause factions to secede from the main union. Locals may disaffiliate from the national and nationals may break away from the federations. Technological changes may result in the disappearance of a particular industry or occupation, along with its workers and their unions.
You can continue searching for information about the union on the web, but you will need to broaden your search and perhaps, lower your expectations. Find out as much as you can about the union from any members or former members that you can contact. Facts that are helpful are the official name, affiliation, location, local number, industry, occupation, and time frame.
Try searching keywords from the union name or industry along with “labor union.” If you know that there was a particular phrase in the union's name, enclose it in quotes, i.e. “united brotherhood,” “international association,” “journeyman plumbers,” “local 101,” etc. Add the city if you know that. Be aware that there were often competing unions in the same industry and city. It may not be enough to know that you are looking for a union of Buffalo railroad workers that was active in 1950, for that could have been the AFL's Railroad Signalmen, Railroad Yardmasters, Railway Carmen, or Railway and Steamship Clerks OR perhaps, the independent Railroad Trainmen, Railway Conductors, or Train Dispatchers!
If you are a lucky Internet searcher, you could find a neat history of the union. These can sometimes be found on the websites of current labor unions, if the defunct union was part of the current union’s history. For an example, see http://www.unitehere.org/about/history.php for histories of UNITEHERE and its precursor unions from the textile and hospitality industries.
What you are more likely to find with your web searches is some mention of the union that will give you clues about it. Many NLRB and court cases that involved unions are available in full text on government (.gov) web sites. Reading the cases or even finding their citations will give you more clues about the union, such as the official name, time frame, affiliation, and location.
Sometimes you will find library records about the union, either from collection descriptions, such as the Catherwood Library Kheel Center Finding Aids at http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/browselists/allKCL.html or perhaps, a library catalog record for a book about the union or a publication of the union. Worldcat.org is a freely available database that is comprised of many library catalogs. Recreate your web searches in this database to find library records for items published by or written about the union. The catalog records will also list the official union names and sometimes give you a clue as to preceding and subsequent names of the union. Worldcat.org lists library and archival locations, starting with those closest to you, where you can access union materials in print format.
You might also investigate how you can obtain access to one of the union directories described below. Directories are useful in pinpointing the time frame of a union's existence. If a union's information is published in a directory one year, but not in the next, that is a clue that something happened to it at that particular time. You can then pinpoint searches to a particular year or two. Here are some of the directories available at the Catherwood Library:
Fink, Gary M. (1977). Labor unions. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
ILR Reference HD6508 .L24
This book contains concise histories of individual U. S. labor unions that include information about their alliances, factions, mergers, and name changes. It is invaluable for tracing the histories of national unions from their inception to the mid-1970s.
Profiles of American labor unions (1998). (2nd ed.). Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research.
ILR Reference HD6504 .A54 1998
Spomer, C. R. (1992). American directory of organized labor: Unions, locals, agreements, and employers. Detroit: Gale Research Inc.
ILR HD6504 .A54
These two reference items contain very detailed information about labor unions for the 1990s, a period just before the explosion of union web sites. Information about affiliations, locals, employers, and collective bargaining fill these sizable volumes. The books were meant to be of timely interest, which makes them most valuable for searching for information about unions from the last two decades of the 20th century.
Various titles: Directory, national and international unions and research directors; Directory of labor unions in the United States; Directory of national and international labor unions in the United States; Directory of national unions and employee associations. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1948-1979
ILR Reference HD6504 .A15
Directory of U.S. labor organizations (1982-). . Washington, D.C: Bureau of National Affairs.
ILR Reference HD6504 .A15
These national labor union directories were first published by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The directories are now published by BNA. Listings for national unions include official name, parent location, publications, officers, and web sites. What makes these directories especially useful for tracing union histories is that they often include, in their appendices, information about changes to the organizations listed. The publishers provide an explanation about why a union that appeared in a previous volume is not listed in the subsequent volume. Reasons listed include that the union has dissolved, disbanded, merged, disaffiliated, etc..
Various titles: Directory of labor unions in New York State; Directory of labor organizations in New York State; Directory of labor unions and employee organizations in New York State. (1948-2002). New York, N.Y: New York State Dept. of Labor.
ILR Reference HD6504.A5 N7; HD 6504 A5 N701
These New York State directories provide information on independent, local, and national unions in New York State. Listings are organized by city. These directories are a source for finding information about smaller unions, which would not be included in the national directories.
There were similar directories for other states. Find them in Worldcat.org, using this search: "labor union" directories state
Hopefully, you have picked up enough information about your union, using these strategies. More in-depth research sources would include visiting a research library to use its archival collection or retrieving journal and newspaper articles, using electronic databases, microtext, or print sources.
Good luck with your research. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you need further suggestions or research assistance.