Union Membership

Recently during a Critical Family History workshop, someone asked me how to find out whether an immigrant ancestors had been a member of a labor union. This excellent question about union membership opens up consideration of various kinds of work records. This blog entry will address union membership, future entries will consider other forms of work records.

If your ancestors happened to work in the United Kingdom, your task will probably be easier than if they worked in the United States, since there are websites dedicated to helping British family historians track down information about ancestors’ participation in trade unions. Trade Union Ancestors, which advertises itself as a “one-person, spare-time operation” is loaded with information and links, as well as a book for family historians engaged in this search. Find My Past provides a searchable database, which I have not tried since my British ancestors pre-date trade unions. The Modern Records Centre in Warwick might also be useful, particularly for archival material about trade unions.

For U.S. family historians, things are more complicated. If you know that a particular ancestor was a member of a specific union, you can simply contact the local to find out what records they have. However, the asker of the question during my workshop (and probably most readers of this blog), lacked that information and wanted to know how to start looking. Unfortunately, in the U.S. there is no central database you can search, at least not at the time of this writing.

So let’s assume you do not know whether a specific ancestor was a member of a union, let alone which union. The place to start is with any resources available in your family, such as asking an elder relative whether her grandfather was a union member (and if so, which union), or scouring family documents for union artifacts.

Now let’s assume there is no existing family knowledge about union participation you can draw on. In that case, start with the census record, looking under “occupation.” Once you know where the ancestor lived and worked, and in what occupation, you can deduce what union the ancestor might have been a member of. For example, let’s say you have a female ancestor who you believe worked in the garment industry in Chicago, around 1900. If you search “garment industry,” “labor union,” Chicago, and 1900, you will quickly locate the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. What you won’t find is a searchable database listing members, but you will find a detailed listing of records in the main collection at Cornell University, and additional records in other collections around the country. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union merged with Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE, so it, like many other unions, no longer exists under its older name.

You will probably have easier access to records of unions that still exist. To find an ancestor in a membership list of an existing labor union, locate the union local (or district level, if there is no local), which you can do with an Internet search. Then contact the local (or district) office to find out what membership records you can access. This will vary, depending on the union’s privacy policy, and on the extent to which records have not been lost or destroyed.

If you have the time and patience, there are other archives you can dig through. The State University of New York union library archives, for example, is a wonderful source of information about labor union history. Their webpage also has a very helpful overview of labor union records. If searching for union records is new to you, I recommend starting here as an orientation into what you are searching for, and what you are likely to find. The website also has helpful links regarding histories of union activism, collective bargaining, and unions as an important part of democracy.

The Wayne State University archives are also highly recommended, particularly for locating information about specific unions. Using the Browse menu on the left at the bottom, you can search by specific labor union (not all unions are there). The archive contains papers of the unions, which may include membership lists. But, like the other union resources, it does not contain a searchable membership database.

Even if you cannot find your great-great grandparent’s name on a union membership list, learning more about the union he or she might have joined provides a useful window into the lives of people like your ancestors. 

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