Students at The University of New Mexico are ensuring the history of organized labor in New Mexico is not forgotten, by preserving it for future generations to study.
“Working People’s History of New Mexico is intended to gather stories of people who have worked here in New Mexico, but also have been involved in shaping labor law, worker’s compensation and minimum wage campaigns,” said Diane Pinkey (UNM Ph.D. '00), one of the project organizers. “All of these oral histories are events that have taken place to benefit people and create equity in the workplace.”
“Through this project and others like it, UNM highlights people who have contributed greatly to the New Mexico community. We hope it helps celebrate the role of working people rarely commended in our culture,” added Richard Wood, sociology professor and interim senior vice provost.
The Working People’s History of New Mexico project (WPHNM) is a collaboration between the UNM Sociology Department, UNM University Libraries and the NM Federation of Labor. Pinkey says in order to make the history more permanent, she asked students with Wood’s community organizing class to help her conduct and record on-camera oral history interviews.
“We really learned a lot from those students,” Pinkey said. “But the students learned a lot too, because they really didn’t know much about organized labor and the unions. So, we got to teach them, as part of the project.”
The students learned the importance of unity through documentation development and creating technical standards for the video projects. Pinkey says she hopes the students were also inspired by the stories they heard from electrical workers, plumbers and pipe fitters, as well as healthcare, education, aerospace, machinist and communication specialists.
New Mexico labor history
Labor unions run deep within Pinkey’s family, and she believes chronicling the past of organized labor is one way to keep the history alive, as well as engage young people in advocating for workers’ rights in the future.
“I grew up hearing a lot of stories about unions and particularly strife within organized labor groups,” Pinkey recalled. “But when I moved to New Mexico 27 years ago, I looked around and realized there wasn’t much record of labor history here.”
According to Pinkey, labor history in New Mexico was only lightly documented, with the main source being a book (Labor in New Mexico by Robert Kern) that only recorded organized labor development from the 1880s up to the 1970s. She thought it would be beneficial to the community and state to fill in the gaps by gathering living history examples and making them available to the public.
She says in particular, gathering stories from older workers is important, because the histories are not written anywhere, but are instead living inside people. WPHNM is focusing on interviewing the aging population, who will soon pass away – taking their historical perspective with them.
That perspective includes recalling the changes that are happening in the nature of work.
For example, some of the communication workers interviewed are people who were employed by Mountain Bell back when the old manual telephone line switchers were still in use. The depth of knowledge and industry change these stories bring to the table is unprecedented.
“All of the people who participated in being interviewed for the project really brought New Mexico labor history to life. Which is something I think is very valuable for our students,” said Kevin Comerford, director of information technology services at University Libraries.
Storing the stories
Comerford is helping the group create digital permanence within their work, by providing them a space in the New Mexico Digital Collections. The collections contain documents, photographs, maps, posters, art and music from across the state, mostly focusing on New Mexico history, water and land issues.
“Our role here at UNM digital initiatives is to help preserve the cultural history of New Mexico and help make it available online for students and teachers and the general public,” Comerford said. “With WPHNM, we’re capturing a piece of community history that’s not well documented.”
Making the oral history interviews available online makes them not only available to the local community, but also to a national audience. In fact, University Libraries is preparing to join national online library initiatives, and Comerford says the WPHNM collection will contribute a lot to those efforts.
Inspiring the next generation
Right now, the group has conducted about 30 interviews, and hope to make that number surge into the hundreds. Pinkey says every time they conduct an interview; the interviewee connects them with one or two other people who also believe in spreading knowledge of organized labor – and hope their stories will inspire the upcoming workforce.
“Whether you belong to a union or you are part of a worker’s counsil or worker’s group – you can join together to have a voice at work,” Pinkey said. “You can help ensure equity in pay and benefits, as well as share concerns about health and safety. You’re not just advocating for yourself, but you’re working with a group of people to create social change at work and in the community.”
The WPHNM project also plans to include oral histories of the developing Labor movement of workers’ councils in the immigrant community in New Mexico.
To learn more about the project, or to get involved, contact Diane Pinkey.