African Labor Union Records Now Available!
Two new labor collections are now available to the public: the Lester N. Trachtman Papers, and the African American Labor Center records. Both of these collections are focused on African labor and trade unionism, and complement the existing public holdings of the AFL-CIO Archive’s International Department in the Special Collections and University Archives at University of Maryland.
The African American Labor Center (AALC) records document the activities of the AFL-CIO Allied Group’s projects, educational programs, and interaction with African trade unions from 1957 to 1996. Most records come from the office of Patrick O’Farrell, who served as executive director for many years. The Center was active across Africa, holding conferences to educate the labor unionists in a decolonizing setting about: practical trade union activism, collective bargaining, and women in the workplace. Though accessioned by the George Meany Memorial Archives in the 1990s, about half of the 261 linear feet of records were only opened to the public in 2014 and 2015, and all records are now inventoried for easier access.
The Lester N. Trachtman papers act as an inside look at the AALC records, since Trachtman was the deputy director of programs and planning for the AALC. His 13.5 linear feet of papers were donated to the University of Maryland in July of 2019. They feature his African projects, his office notes and memos, African trade union organization records, and reports by country — all of which Trachtman maintained for his work through the AALC.
However, the Trachtman papers go beyond the scope of AALC to include selections of his personal correspondence, family photographs, his own publications on trade unionism, graduate school work, and records from his time as a member of the Jewish Labor Committee and Jews United for Justice (both in the United States). These materials take a step back to give a more holistic story of a man abroad in Africa, working in an international labor setting, and then returning home to work with another facet of trade unionism in Washington, D.C. The date range of this collection extends from 1954 to 2008, encompassing Trachtman’s lifetime of union work.
Highlights from Trachtman papers
The sudden death of United States President John F. Kennedy was not only a shock to Americans, but a shock to the rest of the world, especially parts of the world heavily connected to the United States. To many members of the worldwide community, Kennedy was a great leader of character and dignity, and this rings true for trade unionists in Africa. This commemorative cloth object, created in 1965 — about two years after Kennedy’s death, is adorned with the inscription “L’Afrique ne vous oublie pas,” roughly translated to “Africa does not forget you.” It is the most unique object in the Trachtman papers, and sends a powerful message relaying how influential President Kennedy and his policies were in a decolonizing African continent, where many trade unionists were looking for a voice of their own.
The African American Labor Center (AALC), of which Trachtman was a deputy director, maintained connections and bases of operation across Africa, in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. One of the main missions of the AALC was to support local African trade unionists, through funding and supporting educational outreach programs, so that grassroots African trade unions could flourish. On April 9, 1968, this parchment charter established the Ethiopian Labor Center, created with support of the AALC and AFL-CIO. Such labor centers, institutions, and trade unions sprang up across Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, as the rights of independent unions rose in prominence.
The Trachtman papers are intertwined with the AALC, since Trachtman was involved with the Center’s programs and planning, and thus most of the material revolves around his business with AALC and his Jewish trade unionism efforts thereafter in the Washington, D.C. area. The uniqueness of his papers is contained in his personal records, and photographs that document Lester Trachtman: the labor activist and family man abroad in Africa. Dating from 1962 to 1981, these papers contain dozens of photographs that record Trachtman’s involvement at conferences, as well as personal family photographs of his life in Africa. The photographs help to capture the nature of this personal papers collection, by documenting the professional and personal life of an influential American trade unionist in Africa.
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Tyler Black is a graduate of the UMD iSchool, where he studied Archives and Digital Curation. Tyler worked in Labor Collections and cataloging at UMD Special Collections and University Archives.