After flourishing in the late twentieth century, community labor history projects have languished in recent decades.1 Perhaps not anticipating the new spark of labor mobilization of the past few years, labor historians and local museums and historical societies have missed opportunities to document the stories of ordinary workers and their unions and educate and inspire others through public exhibits and programs.
Both public historians and their academic partners have faced new challenges in presenting stories about American workers. This is partly due to the neoliberal political economy, as editors Thomas Klubock and Paulo Fontes conclude in their introduction to a special issue of International Labor and Working-Class History on labor and public history, but also because of new priorities within museum and academic cultures.2 Richard Anderson recently noted this disconnect between labor and labor historians and stated that making labor scholarship accessible is key to forming “a deep reservoir of inspiration and guidance” for current labor struggles, even as the demands of the academy require scholars to publish in more obscure journals and monographs.3 Public history institutions have always faced funding challenges, but in recent decades they have confronted more scrutiny into the content of their collections and programming efforts. Smaller museums in particular face pressures from local governments, boards, and members; lack consistent funding and sufficient professional staff; and must cater to the interests of granting agencies and donors. As a result, they are reluctant to tackle projects that either will not garner financial support or might be viewed as too “political” or “controversial.”4
For museums in communities that may lack a well-known or celebrated labor past, public and labor historians face even more difficulties as they try to develop projects that document and present the history of workers and their popular protests. Earlier scholarship and public history projects have focused on famous sites of struggle, such as in New York City, Pittsburgh, Homestead, Lowell, or Chicago.5 Deindustrialization spurred local efforts to collect archival materials, oral histories, and artifacts to be presented in exhibits, publications, and commemorations—mostly in the industrial heartland of the northeastern and midwestern states, the landscapes of focus of so much labor history. Whereas the labor history of these places may be the most familiar to the public, the histories of smaller cities and suburbs can illuminate the ways that workers formed and participated in unions and interacted with both their employers and their communities in the years when a union presence was commonplace.
This essay focuses on a local public history project that overcame these challenges and succeeded in documenting one county’s hidden labor movement history, creating new partnerships, and attracting new enthusiastic constituencies to museum programs. Spearheaded by the Clark County Historical Museum (CCHM) in Vancouver, Washington, this collaborative public history project involved museum staff and volunteers, professors and students from Washington State University Vancouver, the Vancouver Community Library (part of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District), and various local unions. The Northwest Labor Press, the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council, and the Labor Roundtable of Southwest Washington also provided critical support. A local nonunion business contributed critical financial resources to help fund the exhibit. In one year, we produced a major exhibition, a walking tour, new oral histories and other collections, as well as a variety of public programs including a book discussion series. The project also generated new long-term relationships with diverse communities, provided instruction that is ongoing, and created an inclusive funding model that would be used for later CCHM projects. The project demonstrated that by focusing on a single county’s labor history and drawing on the expertise of community members, professional staff, and scholars, a museum can successfully document an important but neglected aspect of a place’s history, educate a community about that history, and expand public history audiences by developing new exhibits and programming.
Until the late twentieth century, entire communities—including Vancouver, Washougal, and Camas in Clark County, Washington—supported union workers because they depended on union wages to support local businesses, taxes, and middle-class aspirations. Clark County is now the northern suburb of the larger metro area of Portland, Oregon, separated by the Columbia River; but it was once a blue-collar and union bastion in Washington state, with its own flourishing industries and labor movement. From the late nineteenth through most of the twentieth centuries, Vancouver epitomized the Northwest economy with its reliance on lumber and paper mills, railroad yards, small manufacturing, wartime shipyards, an aluminum plant dependent on cheap power from Columbia River dams, and seasonal farming, forestry, and fishing. Like other small cities in the region, it also hosted a thriving labor movement that represented a range of workers from wood products industries to restaurants, schools, and offices. As our exhibit and accompanying public programs revealed, many residents and museumgoers were surprised by this story. However, it is one that history museums are obligated to tell as part of their mission to explore a community’s past and to find and interpret the stories of working people that are often forgotten, neglected, or hidden.
The storied, militant written labor history of the Pacific Northwest has mirrored the national focus on male-dominated unions and industrial heritage, with the bulk of scholarship and archival efforts focused on the urban centers of Seattle and Portland. The vitality of this scholarship and interest is reflected in the annual conferences of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, which since 1968 has attracted scholars, students, union members, and public historians from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon to participate in its programs. Since 2005, the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, launched and directed by Professor James Gregory and his students at the University of Washington (UW), has created significant digital labor history resources. In 2008, the UW Libraries—with funding and support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Washington State Labor Council, and UW Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies—launched the Labor Archives of Washington to collect and curate labor collections. The Oregon Historical Society has also sponsored a major labor oral history project, and its hundreds of hours of interviews have added to the public knowledge about the region’s history.6
However, many communities have been overlooked in this documentation effort and have forgotten or even avoided their labor past. When historian Aaron Goings sought to find material for his research on labor in southwest Washington, he discovered that the Aberdeen History Museum had large labor history collections, particularly from local trade unions and the International Woodworkers of America (IWA).7 However, the museum staff made no effort to process or publicize the collections, and even placed a “do not catalog” sign on top of the labor materials. Tragically, the materials were never digitized, and in June of 2018, the Aberdeen Historical Museum was destroyed by a fire that took the entire labor history collection—and many others—with it. Thousands of unique items from the IWA, Cooks & Waiters’ Union, and local labor council burned in the fire.8
Although the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) have received much attention from labor historians, many communities where the IWW was active from 1905 to 1920 have either ignored or mischaracterized the union’s popularity and its roles in lumber and agricultural industry strikes in their local historical publications, collections, and historic sites. For example, for seventy years, the town of Centralia had commemorated only one side of the 1919 Legionnaires Armistice Day parade, the attack on the IWW hall, and the subsequent lynching of Wobbly Wesley Everest. In 1924, the town erected a towering bronze statue named The Sentinel to memorialize the four slain legionnaires as a permanent symbol against labor radicalism. However, in the 1990s, local teachers, a visiting public historian, and new residents sought an honest reckoning by soliciting new research and public conversations. This resulted in the successful nomination of two Centralia sites (the Sentinel statue and Wesley Everest’s grave) to the National Register of Historic Places.9 A committee of union members, businesspeople, educators, and other residents met through 1996 to consider commissioning a mural to depict Centralia’s labor past to complement the Sentinel statue. The committee also raised funds, and local business owner John Regan donated his storefront—in the building that housed the former Elks Lodge, overlooking the town square—for the mural. In December of 1997, artist Mike Alewitz unveiled The Resurrection of Wesley Everest, a giant mural depicting references to the area’s past and present labor struggles, which serves as a visible commentary to visitors and residents alike.10
Lacking a colorful or controversial labor story from its past, a place like Clark County is a less obvious but equally important subject for public historians and institutions. Many deindustrialized cities of the eastern US have saved elements of their industrial and labor history built environment, but in the Pacific Northwest, many urban areas such as Vancouver have dismantled physical reminders of this history.11 Even as Clark County’s population mushroomed as it became part of the Northwest’s Silicon Forest and a sprawling bedroom community for the expanding Portland metro area, labor union density has declined, and landmarks such as local union halls closed their doors and combined with sister Portland locals.
The area’s labor orientation and history was nearly forgotten until September 2011, when a dramatic strike among ILWU dockworkers in nearby Longview, Washington, brought attention to the labor movement again.12 As local press and community perceptions turned negative, Susan Tissot, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver and a former member of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, recognized the community’s widespread unfamiliarity with labor’s history. At the same time, her collaboration on another timely exhibit project with Laurie Mercier, professor of history at WSUV, helped hatch the idea for a labor history exhibition.
Since Tissot became executive director in 2003 (where she served until 2014), the CCHM has played an outsized role in Washington’s third-largest city as the major local heritage institution. The museum created professionalized exhibits and collections, hired professional staff, and developed partnerships with other area institutions, artists, scholars, and businesses. It also began exploring formerly ignored topics, including the Indigenous history of the region, foodways, agriculture, the experiences of women and African Americans, organizations such as the NAACP, and the arts. Even with its small physical footprint, the museum fulfils its mission by engaging in strong community outreach through carefully curated exhibitions and engaging public programs. With a small budget and staff, CCHM has also been creative in expanding institutional connections; for example, it joined with Washington State University librarians and professors to digitize newspapers and other collections. As a trained anthropologist and public historian, Tissot recognized the need to include academic historians in museum planning and projects. Bradley Richardson, current executive director and former museum experience coordinator, continued Tissot’s efforts to make programs relevant and accessible through partnership with academic historians.
In 2011, Tissot and Mercier collaborated on an exhibition entitled Bridging the Gap which brought together museum staff, scholars, and students to document the history of the Interstate-5 bridge, which crosses the Columbia River and connects Washington and Oregon, linking the West Coast’s economy. Created in the midst of a controversial proposal by Washington and Oregon to reconstruct and expand the bridge, the exhibition told the long story of efforts to construct, fund, and modify the bridge since its erection in 1917. With funding from Humanities Washington, CCHM seized the opportunity to provide historical context for debates and discussions surrounding the bridge’s proposed expansion. In conjunction with the exhibit the museum provided a series of public programs with architects, geographers, urban planners, and environmental historians. The opening program, a panel moderated by a Clark County Superior Court Judge, featured both supporters and opponents of the bridge reconstruction. The panel took written questions from audience members, allowing for a civil dialogue between supporters and opponents. This project demonstrated that the museum could uncover a history that both supporters and opponents of the contemporary bridge project knew little about, and it attracted appreciative and thoughtful audiences to what might be perceived as a controversial topic typically avoided in the museum world.13 The exhibit, programming, and collaboration helped lay the groundwork for the labor history project.
Creating and Sustaining a Community Partnership
Much like the bridge issue that sparked our interest in uncovering the deeper history of a current controversy, the ILWU strike in nearby Longview and the public criticism it received reminded us that there was a need for public education about the history of the area’s labor movement. CCHM staff member Sheri Baur, whose husband Mike was an active ILWU member and had coordinated ILWU volunteers to move CCHM collections offsite into a new storage facility, had already helped educate staff about labor issues.
As we made plans for the labor exhibit in 2012, we quickly discovered two major challenges that compelled us to reach out to the community for assistance. First, we found little information about Clark County’s labor history in the museum’s collections or in state, regional, and local archives and libraries. Although we did find useful material in local newspapers, those sources invariably focused on dramatic events such as strikes and work stoppages; they were often not sympathetic to labor and rarely included details about workers’ daily work and perspectives. CCHM staff identified materials in the museum’s holdings that could be useful—tools, union buttons, and a few collections such as from the Western Washington Teachers Association—but they soon realized that community outreach was necessary in order to gather adequate materials to tell the story.
Finding funding for the exhibit and programs proved to be another challenge. We were surprised to discover that traditional funding sources and agencies expressed reluctance and declined to fund a labor project because of its “controversial” subject matter. “Our board would not touch this,” said one foundation representative. The fact that funders shied away from labor history topics revealed just how marginalized a once-mainstream institution in American life had become. Just as labor had lost power in American politics and workplaces in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it had lost a voice in media, local governments, and on boards where people were often afraid to offend corporate employers and funders.
However, labor unions and their members helped us overcome these major obstacles by providing research materials, artifacts, memories, and funding. All community projects begin with reaching out to key people in that community and then gradually widening the circle of contacts. As Tissot recalled, “you can’t just start knocking on doors cold turkey and expect people to embrace you.” Many people directed her to Ed Barnes, the retired president and business representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48. As an active labor leader in Vancouver and the larger region, Barnes connected CCHM to various unions and compiled a list of people who should be interviewed. He also served as an important link to individuals and both local and state labor councils. Oglala Lakota activist (enrolled Pine Ridge) and labor leader Roben White was also critical to the project. As president of the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 10 and a board member of the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council, White became a cheerleader for the exhibit and a liaison between the museum and the labor community. He was an instrumental fundraiser for the exhibit and got us in the door so that we could borrow union materials. In addition to soliciting union-related contributions, White landed a significant cash donation from a local business owner, who had not previously financially supported the museum. Other key individuals within labor unions and councils also persuaded their members to support the project.
Unlike many museums which are reluctant to produce an exhibit without significant collections, CCHM actively looked for the materials to display with the help of local unions. We wrote letters and emails asking for participation, gave presentations, and made requests at local union and labor council meetings. The Northwest Labor Press, which reaches over fifty thousand members of more than eighty unions in Oregon and Southwest Washington, put out calls for its readers to participate in the project and potentially loan photographs, ephemera, and other objects. What we and the unions quickly learned was that for the most part, locals had not recognized the significance of their records, which became another critical point of the project’s development. Ordinary workers rarely leave behind accounts of their activities because they do not realize the significance of their history. Meanwhile, unions either fail to preserve their archives or are very protective about sharing them with others.14 This led to museum staff having more meaningful discussions with local unions about the importance of their own history by preserving meeting minutes, scrapbooks, photographs, and objects for historical research, and about how these materials can both reshape the narratives about labor’s past and inform their own members. Tissot and Richardson made appeals for items to be donated to local archives.15 For example, frustrated by the difficulty in finding a locally significant ordinary punch-in time clock to use in the exhibit, Roben White acknowledged the importance of collecting “the stuff” that is “our soul.” To solve the time clock issue, the museum purchased one with no provenance from Ebay and printed custom timecards so visitors could experience clocking in and out of the exhibition. The popularity and educational value of the time clock reminds us that flexibility and improvisation can help public history efforts when collections are not available.
Many individuals and unions had the foresight to keep a few artifacts and photographs in union halls or former members’ homes, which became cherished reminders of a local’s history and a key to mounting the exhibit. Following its outreach, the CCHM received a wide variety of objects and materials. For example, from the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, the museum received a strike garment, early carpentry tools, and a ballot box; from the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 1104, a set of photographs; from the Floor Coverers Local 123, a set of knee kickers for laying carpet, some dating back to the 1890s; from the Sheet Metal Institute in Portland, contemporary students’ work and a hundred-year-old soldering iron; and from the Baker’s Union, a jacket adorned with union pins. The museum also received a strike sign from John Zavodsky, who during one of his terms as president of the Evergreen Education Association was arrested during the 1973 teachers strike. The Northwest Labor Press, IBEW Local 48, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 10 also contributed materials.
In addition to loaning or donating objects, ultimately over fifty individuals and labor-related organizations from Clark County, Portland, and the surrounding region contributed financial assistance, making this a truly grassroots funding effort. It marked the first time so many individuals and small organizations had contributed to an exhibition, providing a model for how the CCHM would fund its future projects. Furthermore, incentive to complete the exhibit by mid-July was leveraged by a major supporter. After hearing about the planned exhibit, the state AFL-CIO approached Tissot about possibly holding its opening reception at the museum when the Washington State Labor Council met in Vancouver on July 25. After Tissot embraced the idea, the labor body helped push fundraising and interest to its members around the state. Many union members who were unfamiliar with and had never visited the museum contributed financial support.
Although it was generally difficult to find materials about Clark County workers and unions, it was even more challenging to find images and materials about women and workers of color. This reflected the white male dominance of Pacific Northwest industries and unions, as well as the entire American labor movement. However, since the 1970s, Vancouver’s unions have reflected the economic changes of other small cities across the nation, bringing broader representation. Its largest employers—health care, education, and the service sector—reflect the rising percentage of unionized workers in those fields and provided a way to tell their stories. In fact, as we neared completion of the project in May of 2012, Vancouver Hilton workers reached a collective bargaining agreement to increase wages and improve access to medical care. The 116 low-wage workers, including many immigrant women, had affiliated with UNITE HERE Local 9 soon after the hotel opened in 2006. In its long struggle to win an agreement, the union had enlisted the aid of community members, clergy, the Portland Jobs with Justice chapter, and other unions to assist the workers and apply pressure on both the city government and the hotel.16 The union’s victory in Vancouver reflected new labor activism in the twenty-first century led by women, immigrants, people of color, and low-wage workers, and it helped link past stories about the area’s labor history to the present.
Unsurprisingly, since historians often rely on oral history to uncover the history of marginalized groups, interviews became central to the research and the exhibition. Interviews provided content for post-World War II history and perspectives on how individuals both remembered and shaped area labor history. Oral interviews provided critical perspectives, and they represented one of the ways we collaborated with the workers we were documenting. As we progressed through the original list of important labor figures provided by Ed Barnes, interviewees eagerly suggested additional candidates. This greatly expanded the number of interviewees and the diversity of the unions we drew into the project. These interviews demonstrated one of the key features of public history outlined by historian Richard Anderson—that we talk with, listen to, and incorporate into our research the perspectives of the workers we documented and presented.17
We also involved students in the project to introduce them to both labor history and the history of their community, as well as to give them the opportunity to participate in the production of oral histories and other exhibition materials. Tissot taught a public history course at WSUV, in which her students interviewed a variety of union members as part of their coursework. However, both Mercier and Tissot found that because of students’ unfamiliarity with the labor movement, they struggled with asking the right questions, focusing their research, and understanding the material they encountered. To make up for this Tissot and Richardson interviewed additional workers from the trades, industrial unions, and from teacher and service unions. Mercier noted that throughout over twenty years of teaching southwest Washington college students, there had been a steady decline in the numbers of students who have either belonged to unions or knew about them through their parents’ work. As a result, we spent classroom time helping students understand the basic function of unions before exploring national and local labor history. Still, students were enthusiastic about their experiences, learned a lot, and took pride in the fact that what they had produced had been incorporated into the exhibit and archived at both CCHM and WSUV libraries.
Mercier’s senior history research seminars at WSUV in 2012 and 2013 focused on Clark County’s labor history, and students’ original research papers were incorporated into the exhibit or used as background material. Some of the student projects contributed new research about forgotten stories such as the 1913 women’s walkout at the Camas bag factory, the 1930s jurisdictional conflict among brewery workers, and the Evergreen teachers’ strike of 1973. Half a dozen students even presented their work at the Pacific Northwest Labor History conference held in Tacoma in 2012 and in Portland in 2013. After hearing students question why they had never been exposed to labor history in their prior education, Mercier was motivated to begin offering a labor history course in her regular teaching rotation at WSUV.
The Exhibit Labor: A Working History
We knew that the story of Clark County workers paralleled the national story about the rise and fall of unionization, but we also wanted to highlight local and regional milestones and distinctive elements. As local historical societies and museums are fully aware, linking national stories to local events engages residents more deeply with the past. We wrestled with how to tell a story that had been invisible to its residents. To guide our research, the exhibit team developed some key questions: How, when, and why did workers create and join labor unions in southwest Washington? What were their impacts and roles in Clark County during the twentieth century? How did the local area’s unique characteristics shape work and unions? In what ways has the state and national context influenced local unions? We compiled and interpreted our findings in twelve chronological and thematic exhibit panels, with accompanying images, artifacts, ephemera, and audio/visual materials. Through our research we uncovered new insights about regional labor history, and we encourage other public historians and institutions to pursue this work.
The area’s natural features—the Columbia River, rich soils, and lush forests—shaped the lives of Indigenous peoples for millennia, as well as the later enterprises that drew other workers to the area. In 1824, the British Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver as its headquarters and agricultural supply depot for its extensive global fur-trading operation. The company employed and traded with the densely populated local Chinook, Cowlitz, and Klickitat Native peoples, as well as with other Native, Hawaiian, and European laborers in an extensive network of two dozen trading posts.18
By the late nineteenth century, Vancouver—incorporated in 1857 as an American town—had become home to a growing number of workers who were affiliating with labor unions to try to match the growing power of capital. By 1901, the Vancouver Federated Trades Assembly represented twenty-nine craft unions, as seasonal male workers in surrounding agricultural and timber industries attempted to organize fields and forests.19
One powerful local industry illustrated local environmental influences, sex-segregated jobs, and early unionization efforts. Workers at the Crown Willamette Paper Company in Camas—the largest employer in Clark County and the second largest manufacturer of paper products in the US—tried intermittently to organize a union but were not successful until the late 1930s. In 1913, women in the bag factory walked off their jobs demanding higher wages and better working conditions. After striking for three weeks, they won a small pay raise and ventilation improvements inside the factory. In November of 1917, the year the US entered World War I, workers in Camas struck for higher wages and better conditions following a wave of IWW-led strikes in timber communities throughout the region. However, the paper company stubbornly refused to recognize the union, labeled strikers as subversives, and hired replacement workers, essentially blocking labor organizing for the next twenty years.20
Although shipyard, railroad, and longshore workers periodically struck in the 1920s to improve their conditions, a wave of strikes in Clark County in the 1930s marked a new era for the labor movement as it did in the rest of the country. Influenced by new federal labor legislation, the creation of the CIO (dedicated to organizing unorganized workers), and the militant 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s strike, men and women throughout the county began to form workplace unions. This energized labor culture was reflected in the creation of a new labor temple and café in Vancouver, a labor publication called the Clark County Union, and thousands of new union members that included retail clerks, WPA workers, and laborers in canneries and woolen and lumber mills. Vancouver even witnessed dramatic “beer wars” in 1935, when Teamsters and Brewery Workers Union members came to fisticuffs over which union would represent them.21
Like many places on the West Coast, Clark County’s economy and employment grew dramatically during World War II, with three major Kaiser shipyards in Portland-Vancouver and other industries operating at full capacity. At their peak in 1943, the shipyards employed close to 40,000 women, where “men’s” wages drew women away from their homes or from female-only jobs. Alice Erickson, who began as a tack welder and later became the Kaiser Shipyards’ first female driller recalled, “I needed to work and that was the best paying work I could get so naturally I took it.”22 The wartime jobs also attracted African Americans to Vancouver. However, racism—especially among the trades—shut Blacks out of apprenticeship programs despite federal directives prohibiting segregation in defense industries. For example, Arthur James was a journeyman electrician from New York who could not get recertified in Vancouver and was excluded from the trade. Many Black families left after the war, when job and housing opportunities pulled them to Puget Sound or California.23
Unlike many labor history projects that focus primarily on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, our exhibition devoted as much space to the post-World War II era as to the decades prior. Like other West Coast metropolitan areas, Clark County grew dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century. Although the shipyards closed, the Alcoa aluminum plant, which opened on the eve of the war, remained a major aluminum producer. Wood products manufacturers expanded, and both the county and region retained its high union density for the next three decades. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, unions as diverse as the Barbers & Beauticians Local 520 to Washington State Penitentiary Employees Local 621 represented area workers.24
Cold War politics and the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 to limit union militancy, threatened area unions everywhere, however, workers sometimes asserted their regional independence. AFL and CIO unions competed for jurisdictional representation amidst anticommunist tensions as they did at Alcoa, where workers switched to the AFL because it “refused to traffic with communists.”25 Dale Chambers recalled that his father Clarence Albert Chambers, as president of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), fought for health and safety issues. Chambers made his employer “live by the rules,” and remembered that “back then there was a big stir that anybody was different was a communist.”26 Yet many workers in southwest Washington resisted national trends of Cold War redbaiting and meddling from international unions. Despite federal harassment and its expulsion from the CIO for supposed communist leanings, the ILWU maintained its independence, militancy, and local autonomy. Dissatisfied with their international unions (International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers, and the United Papermakers and Paperworkers unions), West Coast paper mill workers rebelled in 1964 and created the Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers (AWPPW). The AWPPW newsletter, The Rebel, and its slogan “Guard Well the Democratic Rights of Your Members,” indicated the union’s commitment to internal democracy.27
Extant records and newspaper coverage focused on critical strikes, such as the five-month standoff in 1948 between Machinists Local 1374 and Clark County auto dealers, which required federal and state mediators to end the dispute.28 It was more difficult, however, to find materials to tell the story of labor in the community where workers and their families organized to improve both their work and community lives. Women often took a leading role in organizing consumer activities—including a Union Label League, which encouraged people to selectively buy products that carried a union-made label, and periodic boycotts—to encourage informed purchasing at union-supported businesses. They registered voters, vocally supported or opposed various legislative initiatives, and organized support for strikers and their families. Labor leaders were also instrumental in erecting two major Vancouver institutions: Clark College and Smith Tower, the latter of which provides housing for seniors.29
Although unions helped create a large middle class and supported legislation such as raising the minimum wage, which improved the lives of unionized and nonunionized workers alike, they often denied women and people of color access to better jobs. The 1950–70s Civil Rights and women’s movements pressured workplaces, their unions, and the federal government to begin opening doors to those formerly excluded from specific jobs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and national origin. Even as women and people of color edged their way into jobs and unions, local resistance often made the work difficult. This is not a story volunteered or even known by some union activists. For example, even as longtime ILWU president Harry Bridges frequently asserted his union’s commitment to “equality for all,” some locals, such as Portland’s, vigorously resisted accepting nonwhite men or any women as new members.30 In the 1970s, EEOC enforcement measures required companies receiving federal contracts, such as the Crown Zellerbach Corporation mill in Camas, to submit affirmative action plans to hire and train women and minority workers reflecting the demographics of their region's work force. Barriers still remained, however. Mill workder Crystal Odum recalled, “the challenge for us was not only being African American and female, but it was trying to deal with the different personalities at that time. 1976 was pretty rough, and you are looking at a predominately white male populace at the Camas mill. So, it was a little rough there.”31 Employing oral history sources and giving attention to the divergent stories missing from material records and the typical heroic labor history narratives allowed us to tell more complicated stories about struggles to belong to unionized workforces. This necessity to question and honestly document the past requires diligence among public and labor historians and cautions about relying too much on “shared authority.”32
In addition to the presence of more women and people of color in unionized workplaces, public sector workers such as teachers, often missing from labor public history projects, began organizing in the 1970s.33 In 1965, the Washington state legislature passed the Professional Negotiations Act, which required school boards to confer and negotiate with elected employee groups. School boards, however, still resisted challenges to their authority. In May of 1973, in response to the lack of engagement with them, teachers in the Evergreen School District—a rapidly growing district serving east Vancouver whose teachers were among the lowest paid in the state—decided to go on strike, closing schools for two weeks. They opposed the board’s proposed reduction-in-force and large class size, and called for more planning time, specialists, salary, and benefits. Superior Court Judge Guthrie J. Langsdorf ordered teachers to return to class, and when they refused, he jailed the three male officers of the Evergreen Education Association (EEA). When the mostly female EEA teachers marched to the courtroom to surrender for jail, the judge declined to incarcerate them. The women’s tactics helped compel the school board to bargain for the first time, and it settled on May 25, 1973. The Washington Education Association called it the “most successful teacher strike in Washington history.”34
The optimistic new organizing in the 1970s faced obstacles both locally and nationally as organized labor lost members and power due to automation, deindustrialization, and declining jobs where unions had once organized. As wealth concentrated from the 1980s through the twenty-first century, real wages for most American workers decreased. Local headlines in the 1980s reported multiple plant closures, echoing patterns of industrial closures across the country. In August of 1985, the Columbian announced that the Lucky Brewery—the oldest brewery west of the Rockies—would shut down, laying off two hundred workers represented by Teamsters Local 58 in Longview and darkening the neon Lucky Beer sign that had long lit Vancouver’s night sky. That same year, Crown Zellerbach in Camas consolidated its operations, laying off one thousand workers and selling its mill to James River Corp.35 Even as companies closed, moved, or reduced employment in the 1980s, technology and outsourcing had already reduced labor’s power. Al Swindell recalled that when he began working for Vancouver’s Boise Cascade in the 1960s, 750 people worked in the mill; by the time it closed in 1996, only 300 unionized workers remained. Fewer jobs and shutdown threats also intimidated workers. Dale Banning explained, “you’re not as powerful because people are scared. In this day and age, going on strike, you might not have a job when you’re done…because of all the automation. One of the things you have when you have a union and especially if you have three thousand people, you have a lot of power. But if you now are down to eight hundred people, you don’t have much power.”36
With only about one-thousand square feet of gallery space in which to mount the exhibit, the oral history interviews—collected both for the exhibition and the museum’s permanent collections—were critical to providing details about key events. The interviews also helped convey a sense of how the labor movement influenced individual residents’ lives, a factor often not reflected in other sources. For example, Washington state senator Annette Cleveland recalled that she came to recognize the importance of unions when she accompanied her father Jim Forbes to ILWU pickets during the 1972 West Coast strike:
I distinctly remember how committed my dad was to taking a stand and insuring that everyone was solid in their support…[he] saw his ILWU coworkers as his extended family…I absolutely understood as a young girl that [the strike] was about ensuring that wages continued to be fair and that workers were treated equally…in fact, my father made it clear to my sister and I that one of the fundamental values we were raised with was the ILWU credo: ‘An Injury to One is an Injury to All.’ I know that that has absolutely influenced me.37
Al Swindell recalled that when his AWPPW union went on strike at Boise Cascade, other unions provided support because workers and their families recognized that they were contributing to a better future. As he stated, “the cost is so high. The only people who win are the people who come after you in the labor movement [who] get those benefits and the pensions and the health care and the wages that you negotiated.…During that nine-month [strike] period, you lost a huge amount of money.…[but it] isn’t even about you, it’s about the people coming after. You’re looking at the future.” Sandra Andrews echoed the role of family members in teaching the value of unions and how such organizations provided protection to the vulnerable worker:
[I became involved in organizing a union because I] was from a union family, my husband was union, and I knew what a union could do for us. I know how we were treated, and things that happened that were not right…[A lot of younger workers] didn’t know they could get better working conditions and be treated fairly and…didn’t know anything about the union, didn’t want to pay union dues, because we didn’t make that much money. [But it was not just about] getting bigger raises…it’s not always about the minor things, but…bigger things; if you need ‘em, they’ll be there for you.38
Throughout the exhibit, museum staff installed Oral History Listening Stations where visitors could listen to interview excerpts, as well as additional interactive elements that were very popular. Visitors could punch in and out using a time clock and could also show their timecards to museum staff before leaving in exchange for a souvenir frisbee marked with exhibit information. Staff created a “breakroom” decorated with union posters in which a TV broadcast 1950s–60s era labor-related ads that focused on workers and “buy union” campaigns. Visitors could play “Tools of the Trade Guessing Games,” where they were tasked with plugging lead lines into the correct hole to speculate what contemporary electricians’ tools were used for. In another game, visitors compared vintage tools housed behind Plexiglass with their modern equivalents, guessing how and for what purpose the tools were used before pulling out a drawer to reveal the answer. Other resources included a handout with a bibliography of recommended readings about Pacific Northwest labor history.
Related Projects, Outcomes, and Conclusions
At the exhibit’s opening reception on July 11, 2013, visitors filled the museum. This would be the first of many receptions and programs that accompanied the exhibit through 2015. The opening program included labor historian, musician, and University of Washington Tacoma professor Michael Honey and his multimedia presentation, “Links on the Chain: Labor and Civil Rights in Story and Song.” That summer, the state AFL-CIO and Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders (YELL) held opening receptions at the museum for their conferences, and other groups sponsored exhibit tours. Exhibit team members participated in panels at the Pacific Northwest History and Pacific Northwest Labor History Association annual conferences held in Vancouver in the spring of 2014, and the museum hosted conference visitors for exhibit tours.
In conjunction with the exhibit and accompanying programs, Richardson and volunteer Ken Fry organized a walking tour that started at the museum and stopped at eight different sites in downtown Vancouver that were once relevant to labor’s past, building on public historians’ insights that finding and incorporating “places of memory” can move, inspire, and teach.39 At the same time, Vancouver has lost many of its centrally located labor sites over the past few decades.40 To address this, museum staff creatively incorporated locations meaningful to labor history into the tour, such as the site of a former auto dealer, which represented the struggle between unionized mechanics and dealerships during the 1980s that ended with Vancouver dealers achieving non-union shops. The tour also included a former labor temple on East 11th Street, constructed by Laborer’s Local 335 in 1946 and home to at least fifteen labor union offices until the late 1970s. Some of the sites on the tour no longer physically exist including former labor temples, union halls, and other places of employer-worker conflict. The museum reimagined these sites through a walking tour, but public historians can display historic photographs and plaques marking the locations of former structures or events. The lack of physical reminders points to a larger issue in preserving labor history. As historian Rachel Donaldson emphasizes, formal historic designation protects a site to ensure that it can become “a place of historical interpretation for public audiences,” but she also notes that the tools for formal designation of labor sites are limited, since some significant buildings or sites are either too new to qualify or have disappeared altogether.41
Finally, in collaboration with the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District and with additional support from the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council and Humanities Washington, we organized a book discussion series lasting through the winter and into spring of 2014. The series “Labor: The History of Work and Workers in the Pacific Northwest” featured an opening program and discussion at the Vancouver Community Library that was recorded by and aired on Clark-Vancouver Television (CVTV). Four programs were also included at the museum, including three book discussions led by author historians Erasmo Gamboa, Sandy Polishuk, and Laurie Mercier. Additionally, friends of the Vancouver Community Library provided books to discussion group participants free of charge.42 A concluding program brought the authors and readers together for a final discussion on the group’s findings about Pacific Northwest labor history. We were pleasantly surprised that the series drew many interested participants, some of whom were new to the community and knew little about labor, and others who were current or former union members.
We believe that the attention the exhibit and programming received—and the new research developed, collections enhanced, and relationships and audiences formed—can serve as an example for other institutions. Union members and their families—many of whom had never stepped inside the museum—saw their history represented for the first time, stimulating interest in the relevance of their past and the importance of preserving records, artifacts, and stories. As the late James Green noted, public labor history not only helps counter representations of the past that ignore workers, but it helps community members “see themselves as active citizens shaping their own lives.”43 The lessons of history became very clear to labor leader Roben White, who observed that “we’re fighting the same fights.” The exhibit attracted other new constituents to the museum, including young workers, students, and new Clark County residents who had not yet developed a sense of community or learned about the area’s history.
The exhibit framed Clark County’s labor history in the context of its unique contributions to the region and also showed how its local history paralleled developments throughout the nation. Careful to avoid nostalgic representation, the exhibit provided historical context for changing economic and political developments; it also emphasized the words of union members who had reflected on their past motivations, key events, and the meaning of unions in their lives. For museumgoers who had little understanding of, experience in, or memory of the labor movement, those reflections may have provided the most powerful instruction.
Exhibitions are always ephemeral, though, and because CCHM has limited space and undertakes new exhibits each year to attract interest and visitors and generate new programming, the labor exhibit was taken down at the end of 2015. Designed as a temporary exhibit, we tried to extend its life by offering it for installation in one of the local union halls. In the end the exhibit was stored, digitized, and saved online on the CCHM website.44 During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, when the museum was closed from March 2020 until April 2021, director Richardson moved the two-dimensional exhibit panels outdoors so that they could be viewed by passersby visiting or working in downtown Vancouver. The museum has continued to mine the exhibit for content by using materials from the exhibit in two exhibitions: the first on the Port of Vancouver and the second on the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Other positive results of this project include the establishment of a more participatory process for subsequent exhibits and developing new long-term relationships. Unlike many galleries that consider participation to mean encouraging visitors to submit their comments on Post-it notes, CCHM encouraged community participation from the outset to ensure that there were stakeholders throughout the process. Featured on one of the exhibit panels are the names of all who donated cash and in-kind services to the project—this not only generated a level of pride among the community, but also confirmed their sense that their history was relevant and that their support mattered. This model has been continued with three additional exhibits where individual donors were able to sponsor an exhibit and be recognized in the gallery. After seeing the benefits of the exhibit, some tradesmen and women who contributed to the project later volunteered to help remodel the museum’s northeast gallery and breakroom.
The project taught us the importance of telling significant community stories regardless of whether collections exist or whether the subject matter might be viewed as a controversial topic by funders. According to Richardson, it taught us how to “pull people in and pull items in.” Without major grant funding, the museum opted to rely on lots of small donors. By relying on small donors we instilled pride and long-term support in those who donated, increased the exhibition’s impact on visitors, and removed the expectations that come with accepting grants or contributions from just a handful of funders. This will be the inspiration for future fundraising and allow the museum more freedom in content development and presentation. Tissot believes that the museum’s willingness to take a risk and become creatively resourceful—“We were scrappy, and we did not censor”—emboldened it in ways that generated long-term benefits. One of the primary goals of museum programs is to increase and expand museum visitation and to educate and create dialogue with diverse communities. The labor exhibit clearly met this expectation as shown in a volunteer survey available to all exhibitgoers through evaluation forms solicited at the end of each program. By analyzing the zip codes captured on these forms we were able to determine there was an increase in new museum goers from Washington and Oregon. The public programs associated with the exhibit created a safe space for open forums and civil discussions about labor issues. Contrary to the initial comment by a local foundation member who stated, “their board would not touch this project,” the museum did not experience any backlash from non-union visitors, board members, existing partners, or other funders. In fact, this collaborative effort expanded the museum’s outreach and developed opportunities for new partnerships.
The exhibit had a major message that some visitors remembered: “this exhibit tells an unfinished and incomplete story. We need your help in preserving the memories and records of labor’s past.” In addition to oral histories collected at the time, the exhibit motivated a few community members to donate labor materials to CCHM. At WSUV, a new course on labor history has generated even more student interest, knowledge, and research, adding more information to the WSUV library archives. CCHM published several articles about area workers in its annual journal, and Richardson completed a now widely referenced MA thesis at Portland State University on the history of labor actions at the Camas paper mill.45
As our students and residents face increasing uncertainties as workers and the US population at large witnesses historic inequalities in wealth—partly due to fewer opportunities for union jobs and wages—it is more important than ever for local historical institutions to find and share labor history. Labor historians have continued to stress the need for making their work public, and the National Council of Public History recently sponsored a working group devoted to integrating the fields of public and labor history more closely.46 As museums scramble to record the memories of the last remaining World War II veterans, it is important to remember that the “greatest generation” also sustained a high percentage of union membership, and that there are other lessons to be learned from their workplaces as well as their wartime service. The economic, cultural, and social wealth of our nation was made possible by working people, yet their stories are largely missing from schools, media, and heritage institutions. How did organized labor (which represented a significant portion of the nation’s workforce until the 1980s) become so disparaged and “controversial” in the twenty-first century? Why are programs and courses about business enterprise, markets, and finance plentiful in publicly funded venues such as public television, radio, and school classrooms, but not about workers and their labor unions? This imbalance—and the consequent void left in our collective knowledge of history—makes it all the more important for museums and historical societies to bravely overcome the fear of alienating funders to embrace new constituencies and document and present their community’s labor history in order to tell an important local and American story. The recent resurgence of a new generation of workers who recognize the value of collective organization can help lead the way for public historians to connect the present to the past.
In 1989, the Public Historian featured a special issue on labor and public history that captured the dynamism of two decades of social history work that had enlivened both fields. Guest editor Brian Greenberg noted how each “had been animated by a more activist approach to the production and presentation of history.” Greenberg, “Introduction: Labor History and Public History,” The Public Historian 11, no. 4 (Autumn 1989): 7. In that issue, see the late James Green’s essay, “Workers, Unions, and the Politics of Public History,” 11–38, for a description of the Massachusetts History Workshop as a model for public engagement and collaboration between historians and workers in recollecting, examining, and presenting the past. Green expands on public history’s potential in Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).
Klubock and Fontes argue that by the early twenty-first century, the intensification of economic restructuring and globalization had damaged both labor movements and the labor–public history alliance, making the need for public history projects about workers all the more urgent. Thomas Miller Klubock and Paulo Fontes, “Labor History and Public History: Introduction,” International Labor and Working-Class History 76 (Fall 2009): 2–5.
Richard Anderson, “Taking Labor History Public: An Overview of the Field,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 17, no. 1 (March 2020): 16–17. Anderson provides a useful summary of the differences between “public-facing” work of historians and public history work. The Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) devotes part of its website to collect and offer resources for “Labor History for the Classroom and the Public,” http://www.lawcha.org/labor-history-for-the-classroom-and-public/.
This reticence may be reflected in the 2006 National Archives photographic exhibition, “The Way We Worked,” which, as reviewer Adam J. Hodges noted, for all the rich images and history of workers’ lives presented, somehow managed to elide worker agency in organizing and unionizing to address poor working conditions. Hodges, review of “The Way We Worked,” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (June 2006): 152–55. Julia Rose’s book Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) provides an excellent road map for public historians who may welcome insights on how to interpret and present contentious or difficult topics and increase museums’ relevance to social issues.
For public–labor history efforts see Jeffrey Helgeson, “Chicago’s Labor Trail: Labor History as Collaborative Public History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 76 (Fall 2009): 60–64; James Green and Elizabeth Jameson, “Marking Labor History on the National Landscape: The Restored Ludlow Memorial and its Significance,” International Labor and Working-Class History 76 (Fall 2009): 6–25.
On major labor archival and public history projects in the region, see: The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, https://pnlha.wordpress.com/; The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/index.htm; Oregon Historical Society Labor Oral History Project, https://pnlha.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/oral-history-list-loh-updated-5-19-14.pdf; BC Labour Heritage Center, http://www.labourheritagecentre.ca/; Conor M. Casey, “Putting History to Work: the Labor Archives of Washington as a Model for Forging Stronger Connections between Labor and the Academy,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14, no. 2 (2017): 9–11.
Aaron Goings, Brian Barnes, and Roger Snider, The Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Southwest Washington (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2019).
Aaron Goings, email correspondence with Mercier, August 1, 2020.
Robert R. Weyeneth, “History, He Wrote: Murder, Politics, and the Challenges of Public History in a Community with a Secret,” The Public Historian 16, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 51–73. Centralia and Butte are the only Pacific Northwest labor sites acknowledged by the Labor Heritage Foundation in its “Inventory of American Labor Landmarks,” Feb. 16, 2009, http://www.laborheritage.org/inventory-of-american-labor-landmarks/.
Weyeneth, “Perspectives on a Pardon: Centralia Confronts Its Past,” Labor’s Heritage 10, no. 4 (June 1999): 26–33; Helen Lee, “Continuing the Dialogue in Centralia: The Union Mural Project and Beyond,” Labor’s Heritage (June 1999): 41–43.
Despite its storied labor past, it is significant that the only formally recognized labor and industrial site in the Northwest is the Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark in western Montana. Martha Kohl details the three-decade struggle of historians and community activists to expand the original 1961 National Park Service designation of the Butte National Historic Landmark district to include a much wider swath of this unrivaled industrial landscape that once represented the “Gibraltor of Unionism.” Kohl, “The Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark,” Montana the Magazine of Western History 56, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 64–70.
For more on the issues surrounding the strike and militancy in the twenty-first century, see Evan Rohar, “Longshore Union Protests ‘Police Brutality’ as President Surrenders,” LaborNotes, September 26, 2011, https://labornotes.org/2011/09/longshore-union-protests-%E2%80%98police-brutality%E2%80%99-president-surrenders.
On the exhibit, see “I-5 Exhibit Helps Bridge Understanding from Past to Present,” WSU Insider, January 31, 2011, https://news.wsu.edu/2011/01/31/i-5-exhibit-helps-bridge-understanding-from-past-to-present/; and on the failure of the bridge project, see Hal Bernton, “State Senate Deadlock Kills Columbia Crossing,” Seattle Times, July 1, 2013, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/state-senate-deadlock-kills-columbia-crossing/.
Due to much unsympathetic press over recent decades, unions have grown wary about losing control of the narratives about their history and activities. Richardson reminded us that this reluctance to loan or part with objects and other materials or the lack of acknowledgement of the significance of records is common to almost all groups that the museum has worked with.
The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association routinely offers workshops for union members at its annual conference on how to preserve union records. Conor Casey, head of the Labor Archives at the University of Washington, aids union members in the state with developing records management strategies and transferring materials to the Labor Archives. https://pnlha.wpcomstaging.com/author/laborarch10/; https://guides.lib.uw.edu/research/cmcasey.
“Labor Peace Comes, Finally, to Vancouver Hilton Hotel,” Northwest Labor Press, May 29, 2012, https://nwlaborpress.org/2012/05/unitehere-5/; Aaron Corvin, “Downtown Vancouver Hilton Seals New Deal with Workers,” The Columbian, May 16, 2012, http://www.columbian.com/news/2012/may/16/hilton-seals-new-deal-with-workers/.
Anderson, “Taking Labor History Public,” 18–19. Anderson references oral historian Michael Frisch’s important concept of “shared authority,” in which scholars and community members collaborate in determining the shape and meaning of the past. See Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), and the special issue of Oral History Review 44, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2017) that revisited Frisch’s work.
Douglas C. Wilson and Theresa E. Langford, eds., Exploring Fort Vancouver (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011); Edward and Alice Beechert, “Hawaiians at Fort Vancouver” (National Park Service, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, n.d.) https://www.nps.gov/articles/hawaiiansatfortvancouver.htm.
Morning Oregonian, March 1901.
Center for Columbia River History, “Camas Union History: 1917 Strike,” Columbia Communities https://cdsc.libraries.wsu.edu/ccrh/comm/camas/union-history-1917-strike/; “Paper Mills Will Not Employ Union Labor,” Camas Post, November 23, 1917, 3.
“Nearly 4,000 Workers have Become Affiliated with Organized Labor,” Clark County Union, October 17, 1934; Vancouver Columbian, April 10, 1935.
Quoted in Amy Kesselman, Fleeting Opportunities: Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World War II and Reconversion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 24.
Jane Elder Wulff, First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community from World War Two to the Twenty-First Century (NAACP Vancouver Branch #1139, 2012), 51–66. As in many suburbs that emphasized single family home ownership, many African American workers could not afford to remain in Vancouver. Melissa Williams, “Those Who Desire Very Much to Stay: African Americans and Housing in Vancouver, Washington, 1940 to 1960” (MA Thesis, Washington State University Vancouver, 2007).
Roll call tally sheet, Washington State Federation of Labor 55th convention, July 1957, folder 34, box 50, Accession 301 -1, University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle, Washington.
Oregonian, April 24, 1947.
Interview with Dale Chambers by Hans Petter Grav, April 3, 2013, Battleground Community Library, Clark County Historical Museum (CCHM).
Center for Columbia River History, “A Rebel Union,” https://cdsc.libraries.wsu.edu/ccrh/comm/camas/a-rebel-union/.
Oregonian, July 24, 1948.
“Unions Active in Establishing Clark College,” Oregonian, September 5, 1950. In the late 1940s, the Clark County Central Labor Council and unions lobbied for postwar industrial training for veterans and helped create public funding for the college, which today serves 12,000 students. In 1963 labor leaders pushed for a $2 million federal loan for what became Vancouver’s tallest building, fifteen-story apartments for the elderly known as Mid-Columbia Manor (or Smith Tower). The new building helped revive a declining downtown and continues to be a source of pride for local unions that not only built it but continue to maintain it. “2 million Federal Loan for Vancouver’s Tallest Building,” Oregonian, December 18, 1963; “New Apartment Building will Revive Downtown,” Oregonian, February 21, 1965; interview with Dave Ritchie by Brad Richardson, January 29, 2013, CCHM.
Sandy Polishuk, “‘They Can’t Come in Through the Front Door because You Guys Won’t Let Them’: An Oral History of the Struggle to Admit African Americans into ILWU Local 8,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 120, no. 4 (winter 2019): 546–61.
Interview with Crystal Odum by Kathy Tucker, February 28, 2000, Camas Community History Project, Center for Columbia River History, https://cdsc.libraries.wsu.edu/ccrh/oral-history-crystal-odum/. Today women and people of color make up a majority of organized labor—and unionized occupations have the smallest wage gaps between white men and others. SEIU, “5 Good Reasons to Unite at Work,” https://www.seiu.org/cards/5-good-reasons-to-unite-at-work/for-people-of-color-and-women-workers/p3.
Leon Fink notes the difficulties and tensions that often arise between documenting history, warts and all, and celebrating heritage, which often purports a positive and proud view of community. See Fink, “When Community Comes Home to Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 119–45.
Today public sector workers have a union membership rate (34 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6 percent). Union Members Summary, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 22, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm
Jason Mozes and Bryanna Goldfinch, unpublished student papers, Washington State University Vancouver; Oregonian, June 6, 1973.
“Lucky Brewery to Shut Down,” Columbian, August 22, 1985; “Crown Upheaval Brings Big Losses,” Columbian, October 23, 1985.
Interview with Al Swindell by Brad Richardson, February 5, 2013, Woodland, Washington, CCHM; Interview with Dale Banning by Mary Davies, n.d., CCHM.
Interview with Annette Cleveland by Brad Richardson, March 14, 2013, CCHM.
Swindell interview; Interview with Sandra Andrews by Joel Keelin, March 25, 2013, CCHM.
Green and Jameson, “Marking Labor History on the National Landscape,” 9.
Some key historic sites that might be featured under the theme of “Working Vancouver,” but were too distant for walking from CCHM, include Fort Vancouver, the former Hudson’s Bay Company outpost; the Vancouver Barracks, former headquarters of the US military operations in the conquest of Indigenous lands and site of the Spruce Logging Division during World War I; and the World War II-era Kaiser shipyards. Portland’s labor history sites have been better preserved, as outlined in Michael Munk, The Portland Red Guide (Portland: Ooligan Press, 2011), which is both a guidebook and informal history of the city’s radical past.
Rachel Donaldson, “Placing and Preserving Labor History,” The Public Historian 39, no. 1 (February 2017): 63; Leah Worthington, Rachel Donaldson, and Kieran Taylor, “Making Labor Visible in Historic Charleston,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 17, no. 1 (March 2020): 61–64. Donaldson provides examples of how industrial and labor history can be preserved through digital history that links to particular places.
Books included Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990); Laurie Mercier, Anaconda: Labor, Community and Culture in Montana’s Smelter City (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Sandy Polishuk, Sticking to the Union: An Oral History of the Life and Times of Julia Ruuttila (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
Green, “Workers, Unions, and the Politics of Public History,” 13.
Exhibition pdf available at: https://cchm-website-uploads.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Virtual+Exhibits/Labor.pdf
See Brad Richardson, “Radical Politics in a Small Town,” 22–31 and Frank Bear, “Aloha, Fort Vancouver!” 32–41, Clark County Historical Society Annual (2014); Bradley Dale Richardson, “The Forgotten Front: Gender, Labor, and Politics in Camas, Washington, and the Northwest Paper Industry, 1913–1918,” (MA Thesis, Portland State University, 2015).
Richard Anderson, “Taking Labor History Public: An Overview of the Field,” Labor: Studies in Working- Class History, 17, no. 1 (March 2020): 15–16. In an earlier NCPH blog post Anderson noted that it’s important for public historians to document labor’s past in order to help a new generation of Americans understand the current political economy and how job security, protections, wages, and benefits have been weakened by policy decisions. Anderson, “We Need Public Histories of Organized Labor,” History@Work, January 25, 2013 https://ncph.org/history-at-work/we-need-public-histories-of-organized-labor/.