The University of Washington is creating a special archive of labor-union records to help tell the story of Washington's labor history.

They canned fish, picked vegetables, unloaded cargo ships, built the area’s houses and highways. They organized, marched and rallied for better working conditions, and sometimes died for the cause.

Washington has a strong history of labor organization, and the early leaders of the state’s labor movement were colorful, powerful leaders who organized citywide strikes and held massive parades on Labor Day.

The University of Washington is making a special place for the documents of this state’s labor history in its University Libraries Special Collections. The labor archive is a compendium of letters, meeting minutes, rally posters, newspaper stories and photographs — a sort of day-by-day record of the business of running a union.

Libraries are chock-full of letters and documents from powerful politicians and captains of industry. In making space for union records, “this is a way to tell the story of everyday people,” said Blynne Olivieri, the Pacific Northwest curator of the UW’s Special Collections.

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The UW has received money to grow and organize its already robust collection from local labor leaders themselves. Unions have raised $250,000 — including a $150,000 matching grant from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s longshore division — to help pay for an archivist. The university also is working with local unions to gather more material.

“You can’t understand, in any kind of detail, what has happened in the past, unless the past survives in terms of its articles, records, photographs and documents,” said UW history professor James Gregory, who writes and lectures about the history of labor movements and civil rights.

He says the archive is already a treasure trove of information for students and researchers. Its collection from the radical Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, is the best in the country.

Washington’s early history is steeped in the history of unions, a vivid and sometimes violent past that includes communists and socialists, as well as immigrants and early civil-rights leaders.

“They were radical,” said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council. “Many gave up their lives to be part of a union in those days.”

Unions also were responsible for helping to pass safety and health laws, set shorter working hours, create holidays and provide workers’ compensation and health care, Bender said.

And Gregory said early labor leaders played a key role in Washington’s rise to statehood and the writing of its constitution.

At one point, about 35 percent of Washington workers were unionized, Bender said.

When Gregory heard stories about unions tossing files in the Dumpster, he and others knew something had to be done to keep history from ending up in the landfill.

“This is the thing that haunts us,” said Gregory, who holds the only endowed chair in the country named after a famous labor leader, longshoreman Harry Bridges. “If it isn’t preserved, it can never be known.”

The Inland Boatman’s Union’s Region 37, a Seattle union, has contributed more than 70 years’ worth of yellowing historical documents to the archive.

Leaders knew the records could be a gold mine, said Terri Mast, the national secretary/treasurer.

One branch of the union, started in the 1930s, represented Filipino workers who canned fish in Alaska, and the records tell the story of both immigration and labor.

Buried in the folders were original documents from the murders of two of its leaders, including Mast’s husband, Silme Domingo, one of two union activists gunned down in the union’s Seattle office in June 1981.

Ten years after the murders, ex-union President Constantine “Tony” Baruso was convicted of arranging the slayings.

The records include community fliers for rallies and meetings, and a petition calling for Baruso’s recall as president of the union.

The papers are important “not just for labor, but for history itself,” Mast said. “I think workers’ stories have to be told.”

Nearly 40 unions are represented in the archive, which includes almost 2,000 linear feet of records, and papers dating back to 1882.

The archive also includes records from pioneering union leaders, such as Harry Ault, the editor of the Seattle Union Record — the only daily union newspaper in the U.S. at the time of its publication between 1900 and 1928.

Riffling through Ault’s folders, Gregory found a 1920 farewell letter by a man named Paul Grib to the International Machinists Union. Grib and 29 others were being deported to Russia — most likely part of the “Red Scare” that swept the nation after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

“Yes, I am going to be deported to Free Russia,” Grib wrote. “I hope that you will free yourself from your parasites in the near future.”

A number of Russians were deported in the 1920s, and they set up a farming collective in the Soviet Union, named it after the city of Seattle and worked it for two generations, until the fall of communism, Gregory said.

Could Grib have been one of those farmers? Gregory doesn’t know. But perhaps some future researcher will use these records to find out.

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com