My name is Sarah Ocampo. In my spare time, I volunteer for my union’s history and archive committee. I want to tell you about fun ways to learn history, and about why preserving and sharing your story matters.
History is usually recorded from a perspective that serves the interests of wealthy, influential individuals, by recounting famous exploits and a narrow view of how public events were shaped. Much historical writing has ignored the presence of working-class people, women, natives, and other oppressed groups. Workers have always understood that to advance their interests, they would need to take matters into their own hands.
In the 1800s, unions began to publish their newspapers, because the owners of the first printing presses were unsympathetic towards workers. Similarly, workers today more than ever are actively preserving and sharing their own stories. They are rediscovering the people’s history and uncovering their role in building and running this country. If workers don’t record history, they risk being left out of it or recast in inaccurate roles.
There are many ways the past has been preserved, and for people to learn about history. Documents kept by individuals, institutions, or governments serve as primary sources. So do artifacts, which are objects – and much more than just union memorabilia, like buttons or banners. They include everything from tools to materials from homes. Workers have recorded their history by writing down thoughts about their lives and struggles, through their decisions to join or fund unions and political parties or to participate in cultural activities.
Records also exist of what workers said when they appeared in courts. Government and union records, newspapers, and other contemporary writings are also useful. Labor historians and other social scientists dedicate themselves to researching and writing about workers.
At first, they focused on the development of trade unions and workers’ politics. Still, a new generation of historians broadened the field to examine the experience and culture of all workers. The writings of historians are valuable secondary sources. It’s important, though, to always identify the political perspective of the author.
Archives, libraries, and museums play an important role in collecting and disseminating workers’ history. Some are even dedicated specifically to working-class heritage and arts. Research collectives, often staffed by activists, publish accessible materials from a particular region. The most vibrant of them rely on the support of volunteers and the funding of trade unions, foundations, and individual donors. Though much remains to be done, they have led the way in ensuring workers’ stories are a part of both public broadcasts and the official curriculum of public schools.
As technology has improved, so too has our ability to consistently and accurately record and preserve events and stories. Take images, for example. At first, only drawings, paintings, or engravings existed. Relatively few artists chose to depict workers as doing so was, at times, considered subversive. Though photography was invented in 1839, it would take decades before workers were regularly featured, and even longer before cameras reached the hands of ordinary people.
Early motion pictures were more concerned with providing a diversion than reflecting workers’ lives, with notable exceptions. Dramas now tell the stories of characters that might as well have been real workers, and documentaries have surged in popularity. Enough films are about workers that we can now search for labor film databases and attend labor film festivals.
Music is a vital historical resource. Some musicians and new media specialists develop video ballads to retell workers’ stories. Others have reinterpreted and recorded folk or protest songs, and many perform at working-class music festivals. Some novels have been written as historical fiction, and the roots of labor history graphic novels can be traced to a tradition of activist and underground comics that emerged in the late 19th century.
Many political cartoons used by unionists to communicate left politics are now artifacts in and of themselves. Workers can sometimes find their history by watching stage plays and theatre, or by following walking tours. It is up to workers themselves if public monuments, murals, and place names are to reflect their lives.
Every community has a working-class history worthy of its tour. In the information age, incredible advances in computing have made a tsunami of digital resources available. Personal computers and smartphones also mean that workers record their history in new formats, like e-mails, blogs, and messages on social media accounts.
Creative specialty websites now curate historical information, collecting digitized documents to make the sentiments and struggles of workers more accessible. Unions have also established microsites that preserve and share the stories of their members. Perhaps one of the most important technological advances for preserving labor history occurred in the early 1950s when recording on magnetic tape came into general use. Tape enabled people to conveniently record oral histories, that is, accounts of the past by word of mouth.
For the first time, workers’ voices could be heard directly, and interviews with ordinary people began to form the basis of social, community, and even union histories. Everyone has a story worth sharing and preserving. The stories of workers’ lives matter. Working-class history gives insight into today’s circumstances, putting lives into a deeper and broader context.
When people see themselves in history, they gain new consciousness and understanding of how to go forward. Labor history teaches workers about their resiliency and agency- – about their ability to improve the world and shape history’s outcome. They discover it is the ‘countless small deeds of many people together who make possible the significant events that become history.’ And while no union was ever perfect, and many have long since disappeared, unions help unite workers and empower them to make history. Looking back, workers have faced hardships, cruelty, and exploitation. But there was also resistance and triumph, moments in which courage, compassion, and love defined the day. These stories give hope and strength to carry on today’s struggles.