Labor Exhibit Text


Slide 1 - Working for a Living: Labor Collections in the Archives and Rare Books Library. An exhibit by the University of Cincinnati Libraries

Slide 2 - Why does labor history matter? Labor history concerns the lives of workers, their various and diverse struggles for workplace democracy, improved working conditions, collective bargaining, and their relationship to changing forms of work and economic production. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the field of history rapidly transformed as part of a wave of “social history” that emphasized the study of previously neglected groups, including African Americans, immigrants, women, and the working class.

Slide 3 - As historians turned towards neglected subjects, archivists similarly responded. In the 1970s, the archival profession, partially spurred on by admonitions of historians and writers like Howard Zinn, shifted from documenting “great men of history” to documenting the lives of everyday people. By the end of the ‘70s, half a dozen new labor archives had grown across the US, including the Ohio Labor History Project.

Slide 4 - Labor archives experienced setbacks starting in the 1980s due to the rise of what would become decades of retaliation against organized labor and reduced funding for public history projects. But labor history may be ready for another revival. Nearly half a million workers went on strike in 2018/19, the largest numbers in over three decades.

Slide 5 - The labor archives of the future may include more digital material than analog, but the history being created today still echoes the struggles of workers to exercise their right to fair wages, good working conditions, and workplace respect that has always characterized the labor movement.

Slide 6 - The Ohio Labor History Project. The Ohio Labor History Project was founded in 1975 as a coordinated statewide effort to preserve and promote the state’s labor history. The project resulted in the identification and preservation of over 300 union and labor-related archival collections that were transferred to various research centers around the state, the recording of oral histories, the microfilming of labor newspapers, and the publication of several pamphlets, books and documentaries.

Slide 7 - The Ohio Labor History Project received significant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ohio General Assembly, Ohio Historical Society, Ohio AFL-CIO, the Labor Education Research Services at the Ohio State University, and universities across the state.

Slide 8 - The project of identifying and transferring labor collections to archives around the state built upon the success of the Ohio Network of American History Research Centers. The Ohio Network designated 8 Ohio archives as official repositories for local government records. Although the records of unions and papers of labor leaders are not local government records, the Ohio Network repositories served as the destinations for labor collections from their local surroundings.

Slide 9 - The University of Cincinnat received several major labor collections as a result of this effort, including the records of Cincinnati’s AFL-CIO Labor Council, the Regional Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers, the Barbers' Union Local 49, International Brotherhood of Painters & Allied Trades Local 308, and others. These acquisitions of labor records created a strong foundation for the Archives and Rare Books Library’s Urban Studies collections, which document the development of the city in 20th and 21st century America, particularly in Greater Cincinnati.

Slide 10 - Giving workers a voice in their workplace. Workers have long organized for a greater voice in their workplaces using methods like workers’ cooperatives, electoral politics, strikes, collective bargaining and unionization. Like all movements fighting for justice, the labor movement has been marked by both tragedy and victory, from the deaths of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers to laws passed against child labor.

Slide 11 - The beginnings of labor movement activity in Cincinnati date to the early 1800s, when groups of workers began to organize around their various crafts. The Franklin Typographical Union, founded in the mid-1820s as a mutual aid society by journeymen printers, was Ohio’s first trade union. As artisanal production gave way to mass industrialization, relations between management and labor went through periods of harmony and of conflict, sometimes resulting in violence.

Slide 12 - A major turning point in US labor occurred during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. New Deal legislation such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act expanded the legal rights of workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain, while setting standard workweek hours and overtime pay. 

Slide 13 - Over the last several decades, workers represented by unions usually negotiate standardized contracts with workplace management, also known as collective bargaining agreements. These agreements typically specify minimum wage scales, grievance handling procedures, and other workplace rights and working conditions. Collective bargaining agreements are often issued in small portable booklets so that all workers can easily keep a copy with them to know their workplace rights.

Slide 14 - Union stewards play an essential role in representing the interests of rank and file workers in a union and knowing the finer details of the workplace collective bargaining agreement. The Textile Workers Union issued pamphlets to its union stewards in the 1960s, and stewards of the International Brotherhood of Painters & Allied Trades, Local 308 wore special pins at conferences.

Slide 15 - One of the most powerful tools that labor can wield is a strike. In 1945, the barbers at Cincinnati’s Terminal Barber Shop went on strike. Between 1969-70, there was a national strike among the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. OCAW Local 7-508 represented workers at a Gulf Oil refinery in Cleves. 

Slide 16 - Like unions across the US, Cincinnati’s unions have played a vital role in educating their members about their workplace rights and safety issues, strengthening social networks, and playing an important role in local politics. Cincinnati’s unions participate in local civic events and give back to their local communities. The National Association of Letter Carriers marched in a Veterans Day parade in the 1960s.

Slide 17 - The Barber’s Union cut the hair of children at the General Protestant Orphans Home, circa 1925. Many unions also participated in blood drives and immunization drives to promote public health issues, like this AFL-CIO Local Labor Council effort in 1965. 

Slide 18 - Unions depend on bringing together their members to create solidarity and awareness around working conditions. Many unions communicated to their members through newsletters, such from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1347, the Textile Workers Local 1495, and the UC Service Employees International Union.

Slide 19 - Cincinnati was a destination for many unions to hold regional, national and even international conventions. The early 1900s saw the hosting of the International Typographical Union in 1902, and the International Printing Pressman & Assistants Union a year later.

Slide 20 - Diversity and Unions. The activism of people of color and women has played a crucial role in the development of unions and the labor movement. Some unions recognized the importance of worker solidarity early on, and embraced the leadership and needs of people of color and women, while other unions engaged in overt or covert discrimination. Following the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s, concern grew over Cincinnati-area building contractors and trade unions discrimination against black workers. A committee of contractors, unions, the Cincinnati Human Relations Committee and the NAACP began monitoring the recruitment of black workers into the building trades unions.

Slide 21 - The District 925 Union, representing the clerical staff at UC (and today known as SEIU District 1199) won their first contract in 1989, and from the beginning represented a diverse constituency of support staff, especially women. The union had many visible on-campus protests and strikes, and even had a protest song set to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land.” 

Slide 22 - Politics and the Labor Movement. Unions have always played a vital role in the political process, from the local, to the state, to the national level.

During the Great Depression, the New Deal brought about significant legislation that expanded the ability of workers to unionize and win workplace protections. After the end of WWII, new anti-labor legislation passed. Following a major post-war strike wave, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which significantly restricted the organizing strength of labor unions. This document shows the efforts unions took to educate their members on the ramifications of Taft-Hartley, from the time of its introduction to even two decades after its passage.

Slide 23 - During the Johnson administration, there was an effort to try to repeal the so-called “right to work” language from Taft-Hartley, which allowed states to pass laws making it difficult for unions to effectively represent all workers.

Slide 24 - During the same period in which the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, loyalty oaths were becoming commonplace in many jurisdictions, which required employees to declare that they were not a member of the Communist Party. This application for membership in the International Typographical Union shows this requirement.

Slide 25 - Many federal laws affect workplace safety and wage requirements. On March 27, 1960, the local unions of the National Association of Letter Carriers held a rally to send a letter to then-Vice President Nixon about pay rates for postal workers. 

Slide 26 - For more information on the Labor Collections in the Archives and Rare Books Library, visit

Exhibit Credits:
Curator: Eira Tansey, Digital Archivist, Records Manager, Archives and Rare Books Library
Designers: Emily Young, Library Communication Design Co-op, and Melissa Cox Norris, Director of Library Communication