Labor historian John W. Bennett has researched the history of the labor movement since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts (Class of 1952). A born collector, he began accumulating memorabilia associated with unions, drawn to their potential as a visual record of labor iconography and self-representation.
Extending back to the 1880s, the Bennett Collection includes examples from around the country, but with a particularly strong representation of New England unions between the mid-1930s and mid-1970s.
The collection is open for research.
Background on John W. Bennett
John William Bennett was born in 1930 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His father worked for the local power company and his mother was a teacher. He attended Holyoke High School and started his studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1949. After graduating in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in history, Bennett worked as a teacher and principal at Russell H. Conwell Elementary School in Worthington. After three months working at the school, he was drafted into the army. Upon finishing his service Bennett attended Yale and earned an MA in teaching in 1956. At this time Bennett also took graduate courses in Math at Brown University.
In the late 1950s he returned to Springfield to teach math and history at the High School of Commerce. While teaching there he met his future wife, Mary, who worked as a school nurse. He joined the Springfield Federation of Teachers, Local 484 of the American Federation of Teachers and during the 60's served as an officer in the union. During this time he was also a delegate to the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council and briefly served as its vice president. In 1971 he took a sabbatical and returned to the University of Massachusetts to begin a graduate degree in Labor Studies. While attending, a professor advised him to pursue a doctorate in labor history and so he left Springfield in 1972 to attend the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1974, while a studying labor history and teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, he began collecting union badges with the intention of using them as wall decorations. He first considered their use as teaching tools when he observed how his students were drawn to the badges after he brought them into class. During this time he also helped organize an AFT local for faculty and graduate employees. In 1977 he received his PhD. His dissertation was on iron workers in Woods Run and Johnstown Pennsylvania during the union era from 1865-1895.
After completing his PhD he began working as an Assistant Professor in the Division of Labor Studies at Indiana University in Indianapolis. In his position he was responsible for coordinating the Union Leadership program in Marion County. While at the university he served as the vice-president in his union. In 1978 he authored a guide to using labor memorabilia as a teaching tool.
In 1980 he began working as an Associate Professor at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He helped develop a Master's Degree in Labor and Policies studies at Empire State College and worked as a consultant to Metropolitan State University when they considered developing a labor studies program. During this time he began serving on the editorial board for the Labor Studies Journal, a position which he continued after his retirement in 1995. Following his retirement he returned to Massachusetts, where he remained active in labor and political causes. He is the president of the Springfield chapter of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council and has moderated debates, manned picket lines, and otherwise continued to serve his community. He has also retained his passion for labor history. He served as the historian for the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council and has been a strong advocate for the creation of a labor history museum for the pioneer valley.
In 2005, Dr. Bennett donated his extensive collection of labor memorabilia to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The collection consists of over 3,000 items representing a diverse variety of realia including approximately 1,700 buttons, 535 lapel pins, 15 posters/membership certificates, 300 hundred ribbons and sashes, and over 350 miscellaneous union memorabilia including contracts, constitutions, hats, shirts, gavels, belt buckles, mugs, ashtrays, pennants, watch fobs, medallions, pens, mirrors, tie clasps, pamphlets, flyers, etc.
The collection extends back to the 1880s, yet most of the material dates from the 1930s to the present day. The Bennett Collection includes memorabilia from around the country, but with a particularly strong representation of New England unions between the mid-1930s and mid-1970s. A wide spectrum of union history is represented here from the Knights of Labor to the Industrial Workers of the World to the A.F.L. to the C.I.O. to a variety of independent unions. Over the years, Bennett used his collection as the basis for lectures about labor history and iconography. These lectures explored how union badges, buttons, and convention ribbons provide information about the history and culture of American Labor Movement.
Mergers between unions sometimes blur the categories used to separate each series. The Amalgamated Lithographers of America and the International Photoengravers Union, both listed under Series 1, merged in 1964 into the Lithographers and Photoengravers International Union (LPIU). In 1972 the LPIU and the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders merged to form the Graphic Arts International Union (Series 5), which was later renamed the Graphic Communications International Union. The Graphic Communications International Union in turn was later absorbed into the Teamsters, which is listed under Series 6. In some cases, workers in a single profession are a split between unions which fall in different series. Healthcare workers such as nurses are represented by unions in both Series 2 (SEIU) and Series 4 (OPEIU).
Donated by John W. Bennett in 2005.
Processed by Harream Purdie, Clare Hammonds, David Wemhoener.
For additional materials related to the history of the labor movement, see :
Cite as: John W. Bennett Labor Collection (MS 443). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.