Archiving is not a spectator sport

Janitors rally in downtown Los Angeles, 1990Today we are celebrating the donation of the Justice for Janitors Papers to the UCLA Library.  The papers document the history of a remarkable union local, mostly recent immigrants, who took on some of the biggest corporations in the city–and won.  (You can find out more about the collection and today’s events here.)

Los Angeles has been a hotbed of innovative labor and social justice organizing over the past few decades, but the record of this recent history was almost entirely journalistic and sociological.  Of course, that’s not unusual with “recent history.”  But having lived and researched extensively in two older cities, it was remarkable to me that  there didn’t appear to be a major library collecting the records of the organizations and people linked to one of the key social movement networks of the late 20th century.  There is just no equivalent in L.A., for instance, to Detroit’s Reuther Library.

The Justice for Janitors collection comes to UCLA through a collaboration between SEIU United Service Workers West (i.e., the union), the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment, and the UCLA Library.  In the main, it documents the period from 1985 to the early 2000s, but also includes documents and photographs dating to the 1940s.  So in addition to providing a detailed record of the union’s organizing campaign, the collection also documents the changing demographics of the L.A. building service workforce, and the efforts of California unionists to organize immigrant workers in the 1980s.

Two years ago my Labor Center colleague Gaspar Rivera Salgado suggested that the janitors union might want to donate its papers.  “What if,” he asked, “we could gather up the papers of the janitors and all the other key unions in L.A.?  What if UCLA was *the* place to study recent social movement and immigration history?” Music to my ears.

IMG_0310IMG_0306The challenge, of course, is that the Justice for Janitors campaign and other unions don’t have a lot of extra time to reflect on the past. They have a great regard for their history of struggle, but putting their old records in order is not a high priority.

So how do you archive a moving target?  The answer is: with a lot of help.

We could not have come even to this point without the work of my graduate students Caroline Luce (see the before and after photos of her handiwork) and Andrew Gomez (who has been collecting oral histories). USWW’s political director Juan Carlos Cristales was a champion from the beginning.  Virginia Espino at the UCLA Oral History Research Center helped to train our students, and made some vital connections with the media.  In the UCLA Library, Tom Hyry, Marta Brunner, Megan Frazier and others helped move the process forward.  We also benefited from the support of University Librarian Gary Strong.  Chris Tilly of the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment and Kent Wong from the UCLA Labor Center cheered us on and helped out at crucial junctures.  And many, many students helped in ways small and large.  Our thanks go out to students in History 146, History 156, History 191d, Labor Studies 188, and Chicano/a Studies Field Research Methods.  And to the members of United Service Workers West, Local 1877 and Local 399, we thank you for entrusting UCLA with your history.

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