Labor Spring 2023 was a nationwide series of events elevating current worker’s rights campaigns, exploring historical movements for workers, and advancing the ongoing efforts to promote racial and gender equity in the worker’s justice movement. Led by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Labor Spring called for local events highlighting workers’ rights in the wake of a new generation of labor movements organized in the midst of the global pandemic.

During spring quarter 2023, Labor Spring bloomed at the University of Washington. Over ten events, both online and in-person, were organized or sponsored by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies over April and May. The Bridges Center’s mission during Labor Spring was to encourage a closer examination of labor history, share knowledge and resources for activists, and bring attention to community activism that has often not been considered part of the labor movement. 

The series began with the opening of the Building a Movement Labor Art exhibit, displayed at UW’s Odegaard Library. The exhibit, developed by interns in the Harry Bridges Center’s labor internship program, featured conditions of Amazon delivery workers and unionization efforts of Ostrom Mushroom Workers in Sunnyside, WA, alongside other art pieces that illustrated underrepresented groups in the labor movement. 

On April 12, the Center hosted an online book talk and discussion of Robert Cherny’s Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend, a biography of the union leader who built the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) into the union powerhouse it is today. Spearheaded by Andrew Hedden, the associate director of the Bridges Center, the discussion featured three speakers: Robert Cherny, author of the biography and labor historian, E. Tammy Kim, a journalist at The New Yorker; and Zack Pattin, an activist and member at ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma. Cherny highlighted the job insecurity and hazardous conditions longshoremen faced prior to unionizing, and the actions led by Harry Bridges to win better wages and safer working conditions. The event reflected on Bridges’ life, his legacy, and the long struggle that longshore workers endured for effective and democratic representation.

Another Labor Spring event hosted by the Bridges Center was the Using Public Record Requests and FOIA in Research Workshop, held April 19. Facilitated by Rachel Erstad, Labor Research Coordinator at the Bridges Center, the workshop’s panelists included Joyce Sinakhone, a researcher at SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, Phil Neff, a Research Coordinator at UW’s Center for Human Rights, and Trevor Griffey, a Labor Historian at UC Irvine and co-founder of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. The workshop not only identified significant uses for public records requests, such as bargaining support, employer accountability, and strategic research, but also underlined the best practices for tracking and organizing information received from public record requests. 

“FOIA at the federal level and state-level public records acts allow for all members of the public to access information about the institutions that impact us all,” Rachel Erstad explained. “These can include state offices, healthcare, education, and more. I've used public records and FOIA frequently as a labor researcher, and it's a tool that can be used by everyone - whether they consider themselves researchers or not.”

“We all have a vested interest in how our systems are operating, using funds, treating their workforces, and how policy and action impact people in and outside of the United States,” Erstad added. “Our panelists used FOIA and public records requests for different reasons: unpacking labor and civil rights history, exposing human rights violations and fighting for immigrant rights, and supporting union members through accessing additional information related to the workplace from publicly-owned facilities. These are just a few of the research pursuits that public records at the local, state, and federal level can support.”

Labor Spring at the UW continued on April 20 with a symposium on Latinx History, which headlined former UW History Ph.D. student Maria Quintana and her new book, Contracting Freedom: Race, Empire, and U.S. Guestworker Programs. Quintana’s work is the first relational study of the origins of 20th-century U.S. guestworker programs across multiple countries and the consequences of the history of enslaved labor and other social and civil rights movements in the United States. Joining Quintana were a panel of former UW History Ph.D. students and current Latinx history professors Michael Aquirre and Josue Estrada, as well as UW Professor of American Ethnic Studies Alina Mendez and UW History Professor Ileana Rodriguez-Silva.

Every year in April, the Bridges Center teams with the UW’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences to mark Worker Memorial Day, a holiday remembering workers who have lost their lives on the job. This year’s event, held online on April 26, focused on the connections between climate justice and workers’ rights. Shemona Moreno, Executive Director of the climate justice organization 350 Seattle, provided a stirring keynote address that continued the Labor Spring theme of building an intersectional labor movement.

Labor Spring continued its focus on contemporary labor movements on May 1, International Workers Day. As part of the UW’s Public Lecture Series, Ai-jen Poo, the President of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, spoke on how caregiving contributes to our economy, drawing attention to how caregivers are not compensated or fairly acknowledged. Poo discussed transformative care with the audience and asked participants to share a memory of providing or receiving care with a seat neighbor, putting care workers at the center of the discussion and reminding everyone that caring labor is not only necessary but an act of love.

The Bridges Center’s Labor Spring 2023 closed at the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association Conference, held May 5-6 in Tacoma, WA. Bridges Center Director Moon-Ho Jung, Professor of History at the UW, provided the keynote address. Drawing on his own experiences growing up Asian in 1970s and 1980s Michigan and his scholarship on radical movements against U.S. empire, Jung challenged attendants at the conference to reconsider how they view American history, and how that history must inform labor movements of the present and future. “We need to study the past to find worlds of new possibilities, to figure out who we are and who we can become,” Jung said. “History, as taught to me through high school and beyond, unfortunately, had the opposite effect. It conveyed a patriotic story of inclusion and assimilation that demanded that we try to fit into the benevolent ‘nation of immigrants.’ We have to challenge those historical narratives. In my view, that is how we reckon with the past to move forward—with our radical imaginations, with no illusions.”