Saturday, June 11, 2016

NYAC 2016: More Than the 40-Hour Work Week

Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont as seen from the window at the end of the fourth-floor hallway of my Plattsburgh, New York hotel, 9 June 2016. Thanks to a zoom lens and some judicious cropping, you can't see most of the sprawl that surrounded my hotel or the windowpane condensation that affected a substantial portion of the view. When I got to the hotel, I was initially disappointed to find that my room window offered a commanding view of an access road and that the hallway window was badly fogged. However, the view from the hallway was in many respects akin to archival research: if you take imperfection as a given and deal with it creatively, you can find a lot of interesting and worthwhile things.
In a former life, I was a graduate student interested the historical intersections of labor, gender, medicine, and public policy. Then I became an electronic records archivist . . . who is still interested in the historical intersections of labor, gender, medicine, and public policy. How could I resist the very first session listed in the 2016 New York Archives Conference program -- "More Than the 40-Hour Work Week: A New Look at Labor Records"? I was not disappointed: all three presentations concerned lightly used records that contain a wealth of information of interest to historians of labor. In the process, they highlighted several topics that cry out for scholarly attention.

My colleague Emily Allen focused on the records of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which administers the Taylor Law, which gives state and local government employees to unionize. PERB settles questions of union representation, provides mediation, fact-finding, and arbitration services in public employee contract disputes, and hears charges of improper practices by public employers, employees, and employee organizations. The New York State Archives holds thirteen series of investigation and case files created by PERB, but scholars have not made extensive use of them, in part because PERB's records are hard to access. PERB's website contains indexes to interest arbitration award case files (1974-2016) and PERB board decisions (1974-2014), and Westlaw's National Employee Reporter database indexes numerous case files, but those who lack a Westlaw subscription must consult multiple sections of the board's 48-volume Official Decisions, Opinions, and Related Matters in order to identify relevant case numbers and then ask the State Archives whether it holds the corresponding case files.

The State Archives is trying to determine how to streamline this process and encourage use of PERB's records, which contain some fascinating files:
  • In the early 1970s, inmates who were paid nominal wages to work in various state prison facilities repeatedly asserted that they were public employees and thus had the right to unionize. State courts ultimately ruled that prisoners were not covered by the Taylor Law, but such cases ought to be interest to historians interested in not only in prison labor and prisoners' rights movements but also in the historical evolution of the concepts of "employment," "employee," and "public employee."
  • In the mid-1970s, the New York City Department of Education attempted reduce the impact of the city's fiscal crisis on its operations by eliminating teachers' contractually mandated sabbaticals. The teachers' union appealed to PERB, and state courts ultimately determined that the department either had to honor the existing contract's sabbatical provisions or reach some sort of negotiated agreement with the union. Historians aren't used to thinking of sabbaticals as a condition of employment of importance to workers, but this case reveals that, at least in some instances, they were. 
Jodi Boyle of the University at Albany, SUNY discussed several significant collections that document both worker and retiree activism and the manner in which researchers seem content to overlook significant aspects of historical figures' lives and work and significant issues that affect workers as they grow older and leave the workforce:
  • Helen Quirini was a Schenectady, New York employee of General Electric who for over three decades held leadership positions in the unions that represented GE workers and for almost three decades agitated for improved benefits for GE retirees and for older people generally. Quirini's papers amply document both phases of her GE activism, but historians and graduate students gravitate toward the first half of her activist career. 
  • Eugene Link was a founding member of United University Professions, the union that represents State University of New York faculty and was active in its retirees organization, but scholars have devoted little attention to his retiree activism -- even though relations between the union and its retiree organization were at times extremely strained. 
  • The Civil Service Employees Association, New York's public employee union, has transferred many of its older records but few of its retiree records. It has transferred some of its retiree newsletters, but researchers don't seem interested in them.
Boyle then outlined how archivists might nudge scholars into taking an interest in retiree records, among them:
  • Being more persuasive with teaching faculty.
  • Actively collecting retirement records and making sure that prospective donors are aware of their value.
  • Resisting the temptation to glamorize strike activity and women's rights and stressing the importance of retirement issues in shaping workers' lives.
  • Making retirement records readily accessible. 
Barb Morley of Cornell University's Kheel Center detailed how digitization might affect use of Kheel's large collection of collective bargaining agreements, which consists of approximately 350 cubic feet of paper records and approximately 2,000 PDF files. Kheel receives most of these employer-union contracts from the United States Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards; it also receives contracts from PERB. Unfortunately, the Office of Labor-Management Standards organizes the contracts it collects in ways that makes them difficult to access; some are organized by company name, some by industry, and some by Department of Labor industry code number. As a result, the paper files have been consulted only 120 times during the past ten years. However, the 2,000 PDF files that Kheel has received from the Department of Labor are readily accessible via Kheel's website and have been downloaded 380,000 times over the past six years. Kheel got a grant to digitize an additional 1,600 agreements covering retail and education workers and create enhanced metadata, and these files are also accessible online.

Morley then outlined some potential new avenues of research afforded by these readily searchable, data-mineable digital surrogates:
  • Integration of minorities and immigrant groups into the workforce as revealed by protections relating to clothing preferences, prayer times, language use, work hours, and specific holidays.
  • The impact of natural disasters, social crises, or terrorism on conditions of employment in schools (e.g., classroom size, numbers of teaching aides, special safety plans and training, building spaces, and water and food safety).
  • Social integration of LGBTIQ employees as revealed by definitions of "family member" in contract provisions relating to family and bereavement leave, family insurance coverage, and bathroom and locker room specifications.
  • The impact of technology, trade agreements, and tariffs on conditions of employment and on labor unions as a whole.
During the discussion that followed and one-on-one conversations with the presenters, my fellow attendees and I identified a number of topics that historians in particular have yet to explore:

The history of older Americans' activism on their own behalf. Scholars have examined the old age pensions movement and the Social Security program that resulted from it, but they have traditionally viewed them in light of the Great Depression and the New Deal. One historian has examined the Gray Panthers movement, but scholarly histories of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and other advocacy organizations and of the pension activism of Quirini and others seems to have been given short shrift -- in part, perhaps, because we unconsciously see older Americans as being the pitiable objects, not the engaged agents, of social reform. As far as I can tell, AARP has yet to donate its organizational records to an archives, but a cursory Google search for "american association of retired persons" and "special collections" reveals that records of several chapters and papers of many activists have made their way into repositories.

Relationships between unions and their retiree organizations. Most unions have such organizations, and the nature of the relationship varies from union to union. Studying a given union's relationship with its retiree group will likely shed interesting light on its inner workings. Moreover, as Jodi Boyle noted, relations between unions and their retiree groups have at times been less than tranquil. Examining how active and retired members' views converged and diverged might help to illuminate how workers' perceptions and priorities shift as a result of broad political shifts and structural economic changes. 

Public employee unionism generally. Although some excellent local studies have been done, no one seems to be looking at the rise of public employee unionism as a whole. In my opinion, there are five reasons for this.
  • Public employee unionism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Unlike the craft unions of the old American Federation of Labor, many of which were established in the 19th century, and the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which won stunning successes during the New Deal era, most unionized public employees won the right to bargain collectively during the last third of the 20th century. 
  • Those of us who study the history of labor tend to focus on dramatic conflict and working-class resistance, but demonstrations and strikes mounted by public employees have rarely engendered mass violence. In addition, public employee strike activity is relatively rare; New York  and many other states that recognize the right of public employees to unionize also bar them from striking. 
  • Public employees span just about every category imaginable -- race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, economic status, job responsibilities -- and the image that comes to mind the word "worker" is uttered is -- despite several decades of "the new labor history" -- all too often that of a white, male industrial worker.
  • Public employee union activity is heavily shaped by state law, and looking at public employee unionism as a broad movement means diving into a lot of legal minutiae.
  • The American labor movement has taken a beating in recent decades. Although public employee unions in a number of states have recently suffered serious setbacks, they are, as a whole, faring better than their private sector counterparts. Studying the emergence of public employee unionism forces one to come to terms with today's dismal state of affairs.
At any rate, it's high time for more in-depth studies of individual public employees unions and the employee associations out of which many of them grew, of broader analyses of the role public employees and their unions have played in the American labor movement as a whole, and of the working lives of public employees -- unionized or not. Many repositories hold records created by public employees and oral histories, personal papers, and other materials documenting the lives and work of public employees.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

NHPRC funded the Cornell project. It's a pretty great collection.