By Margot Willis, Labor Collections Volunteer
In 2013, the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) donated the entire holdings of the George Meany Memorial Archives to the Special Collections and University Archives Department of University of Maryland Libraries. This collection contains the most important documentation of the history of America’s largest federation of labor unions, founded in 1955. Comprising over 20,000 linear shelf feet of a wide variety material, including documents, photographs, audiovisual materials and artifacts, it represents the single largest donation of archival material to the University to date.
Until this summer, the artifacts portion of the AFL-CIO collection had gone almost entirely untouched by university archival staff due to other higher priorities. Packed away in the same bubble wrap and cardboard boxes in which they were transferred to the University three years ago, the AFL-CIO artifacts sat in out-of-the-way corners of Hornbake Library.
Back in April, when I first spoke with University of Maryland Labor Archivists Jen Eidson and Ben Blake about a possible volunteer project over the summer, I mentioned that I have an interest in museum studies, and would like to learn more about the care and organization of artifacts in an archive. Because they needed immediate help in verifying identifications and locations of AFL-CIO artifacts in anticipation of an upcoming exhibit and due to the fact I was willing to work for free, they granted my wish and set me to work.
I worked wherever there were boxes, which happened to be in the very bottom and the very top floors of Hornbake library. Oftentimes, the spaces I worked in were very small, and the boxes very large.
Originally, the plan was for me to go through the boxes, locate each object in the original Meany Archives inventory of over 2500 records and enter the object’s new location in Hornbake. However, after about five minutes on the job, it became clear that the project would be a bit more complicated than that. There were items in the boxes that were not on the spreadsheet. There were items whose accession numbers appeared on the spreadsheet but whose descriptions did not match the items. There were boxes of dozens of items inside other boxes that had not been recorded as being there. The original inventory indicated that some boxes contained certain items, which, upon further examination, were not there at all. In other cases, boxes should have had only one object, but ended up containing six.
This June, city streets in America will bloom with colorful celebrations. Pride, this year, marks the 47th anniversary of Stonewall, and the first year since Obergefell v. Hodges. While most of those celebrating are no stranger to the struggle for equality, it can be easy to forget the struggle of the past and the struggles still needed today. Pride at Work, the AFL-CIO LGBT constituency group, and its members have been fighting for LGBT equality since before the organization was founded in 1994. Today, Pride at Work, along with the labor movement, continues the fight for LGBT rights and equality for all workers.
Pride at work is also celebrating its 22nd anniversary this month. On June 24th, 1994, LGBT union activists gathered in New York City to remember the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In New York, this network of activists held “The Founding Conference of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender People in the Labor Movement” creating the organization known today as Pride at Work. Three years later, in 1997, it became one of the seven official constituency groups of the AFL-CIO.
Join a community interested in promoting labor history by editing the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Part celebration and part workshop, Edit-a-Thons are organized around a single topic as a means to build awareness and community. We’ll draw content from labor-related collections at the University of Maryland, including the AFL-CIO Archives. No editing experience necessary, however participants should have basic computer skills. All participants will receive complimentary issues of Labor’s Heritage journal.
On April 14, 2016, University Libraries’ Special Collections in Labor History & Workplace Studies will co-sponsor a symposium exploring workers and organizing in the twenty-first century. This event is open and free to the public. All are welcome to attend!
Attacks on the freedom to organize in the last several decades have created new challenges for working people. New creative approaches have consequently emerged in sectors across the economy such as in domestic care, fast food, big box merchandising, etc. This symposium seeks to examine all those areas while also placing them within the context of a rapidly globalizing environment.
Elizabeth Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, will present the keynote address. Panelists include Eileen Boris, Teresa Casertano, Lane Windham, Elly Kugler, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Fekkak Mamdouh.
Afterwards, all are invited to join a reception in Hornbake Library, where attendees can enjoy light hors d’oeuvres and view items from UMD’s labor history collections as well as from the Gordon W. Prange Collection of Occupation-era Japanese print publications.
See a full schedule and more information, and join us on April 14th!
of the AFL-CIO’s 60th Anniversary
Before 1955, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) were separate, competing organizations.
The two organizations chose to merge in 1955 to strengthen the labor movement and help eliminate competition between unions and workers.
This is a “behind the scenes” look at the logistics involved in working out the details of the merger among members of the AFL-CIO Unity Subcommittee and the earliest attempts at unity with the No-Raiding Agreement. See Meany’s notes on the constitution draft, handwritten minutes from the Unity Subcommittee about early plans for merging departmental staff, and correspondence between Meany and Reuther about the progress of the merger.
In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and leader of the civil rights movement, spoke at the AFL-CIO’s Fourth Constitutional Convention. Though the early labor movement had a complicated history with race relations, by the 1960s the AFL-CIO and the civil rights movement had fully embraced each other in solidarity. President George Meany introduced King as “a courageous fighter for human rights” and “a fine example of American citizenry.”
In his speech, King commented on the similarities between the labor movement and the civil rights movement:
“Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.”
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
Dr. King also drew attention to the need for solidarity between the two movements: “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.”
King asked two things of the AFL-CIO in his speech: root out racial discrimination in labor unions and provide financial assistance to the civil rights movement. King’s message did not fall on deaf ears: he received a standing ovation from the delegates.
Read Dr. King’s full speech online
Watch a clip from Dr. King’s speech (starts at 15:33)
Read more about the labor movement’s relationship with the civil rights movement
On November 25, 1952, George Meany was elected as President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). During the later years of former AFL President William Green’s life, Meany was gradually handling more and more of the responsibilities of president. As such, Meany was intent on his first priority being to strengthen the labor movement through a merger of the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Within six days he was sharing his early plans with the press. He told them that the AFL and CIO had to meet and “get at this problem as trade unionists” and expressed hope “that we’ll have sense enough to unify the American labor movement in the near future.” The AFL and the CIO were often “striving for competitive advantage” and that there was “too much effort wasted in competition between unions.” (1)
In 1952, Walter Reuther was elected President of the CIO after the death of his predecessor Philip Murray. Reuther was also in favor of unity, and Meany arranged to meet with him in January of 1953. According to an oral history interview by Archie Robinson, Meany recalls the meeting in Reuther’s Washington hotel room:
The two of us met, just by ourselves. Reuther was CIO president for only about four weeks and I was AFL president for about six weeks; we were brand-new presidents. I told him that I was not going to waste a lot of time unless there was some chance of success.
I put forward the proposition that we should try to end the raiding – that you could never get a merger unless you created the atmosphere for a merger. And the way to do that was to stop the raiding, to whatever extent we could stop it. Reuther agreed.
I proposed exploring what the actual situation was in regard to the warfare. The warfare between the AFL and CIO was confined to a few unions; certain unions in the CIO didn’t bother us, we didn’t bother them. A great many of the AFL unions had no interest in raiding; they didn’t have to defend themselves. But there was extensive activity within a few unions. (2)
The next two years included several milestones leading up to the AFL and CIO merger. The AFL and CIO formed a joint Unity Committee, made up of AFL and CIO representatives, to explore the possibility of merging. On October 15, 1954, the Committee made the “unanimous decision… to create a single trade union center in America through the process of merger…” (3) After the AFL and CIO each individually voted for merger on December 1 and December 2, 1955. The AFL-CIO held their first joint convention on December 5, 1955.
George Meany’s May 2, 1955 draft of the AFL-CIO Constitution. Contains handwritten notes from Meany and others. Office of the President, President’s Files, George Meany, 1947-1960 (2014-001-RG1-027), Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
The University of Maryland’s Special Collections in Labor Studies has archival materials about the AFL-CIO merger, including audio and film recordings. Here are some audio clips from AFL-CIO’s first ever convention, held on December 5, 1955:
- Archie Robinson, George Meany and His Times (Simon and Schuster, New York: 1981).
- Archie Robinson, George Meany and His Times (Simon and Schuster, New York: 1981).
- “Report and Recommendations of the Joint AFL-CIO Unity Committee,” 9 February 1955. Office of the President, President’s Files, George Meany, 1947-1960 (2014-001-RG1-027), Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.