Barb Morley 2017-07-11 15:39:14
If you want to understand organized labor for a particular industry, collective bargaining agreements—or CBAs—are one of the best places to start. CBAs set the terms between unions and employers, reflect current labor laws, and inform the negotiation of new CBAs. Since 2003, the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University Library has been the permanent repository for US Department of Labor (DOL) CBAs, which are contracts negotiated by employers with their employees’ labor union representatives. However, thousands of paper CBAs and limited descriptions make effective research difficult. Recognizing the untapped potential of these contracts, the center applied for and received a Digitizing Historical Records grant in 2014 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to digitize selected agreements for expedited access. What Does a CBA Do? The relative strengths of the union and employers are demonstrated by the ability of each to incorporate preferred terms in a CBA. These legally-binding contracts are a complex source of information on the workplace as well as a document of the emerging, accepted, declining, and discarded social perspectives and standards of the employers’ and employees’ larger communities. CBAs identify the bargaining partners, their contractual obligations, and the contract’s effective and expiration dates. They often include clauses specifying how employees get a job, keep it, and retire or lose it; definitions of the workday in hours or activities; vacations, holidays, and paid or unpaid leave; compensation and benefits; how grievances or disputes will be settled; and other employer, employee, or labor union obligations and restrictions. Beyond these descriptions of the work, agreements frequently reveal information about gender roles; the definition and importance of family; ideals regarding religious participation; the integration of minorities and immigrants; community health issues; the impact of violence and natural disasters on the workplace and community; the effects of changing technology, foreign policy, trade agreements, imports, tariffs, and federal retraining opportunities; and the roles of employers and union members in the wider community. Digitization Means Greater Use The center’s primarily print CBA collection exceeds 125,000 employment contracts and covers private, local government, and state government sectors. It documents an enormous range of industries and spans approximately 100 years of bargaining history. But though CBAs are among the most important primary sources for understanding organized labor, paper CBAs received only 120 uses in ten years—and most of these requests were for a specific agreement to support litigation. In contrast, 2,100 digitized contracts which the center received from the DOL were made available by Catherwood Library (the center’s parent organization) in its open access repository, DigitalCommons@ILR. These experienced very different use. Over six years, they were downloaded more than 380,000 times. Clearly, this content has value! Analysis of the most frequently-downloaded agreements showed education and retail contracts had among the greatest number of uses, so NHPRC funds were used to expand access to these agreements. Joining Forces Four teams collaborated on the two-year digitization project. The Kheel Center’s digital collections team identified 11 of 20 CBA collections with an estimated 1,660 education and retail agreements. Metadata creation and enhancement was done prior to the NHPRC grant. CBA collections were described on the folder-level at the time of accession, repurposing folder headings assigned by the DOL for the MPLP collection listings. Headings may include the city and state only, the trade or union name with or without the location, the employer’s and union’s names and their DOL-assigned code number (an identification number given to the bargaining partnership), or simply the bargaining partners’ DOL code. These limited descriptions, the dramatic variability in contract clauses over time and industries, and the range of ways in which any topic might be represented in an agreement hinders comprehensive research use of these paper agreements. For the 11 selected collections, the digital collections team emulated the DOL’s digitized contract classification, using the US Census Bureau’s North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes to classify agreements into one of 23 broad industries. Based on contract review, two-digit NAICS codes were assigned to every folder. Finding aids were updated with this information, then reorganized to virtually collocate folders into series based on industry. Contracts for industries other than retail and education were not described any further. Retail and education CBAs (NAICS codes 44 and 61, respectively) were described on the item-level, matching the extensive metadata profile created by the DOL for the 2100 agreements already available on DigitalCommons@ILR. Some folders also include union constitutions, bylaws, and benefits brochures, documents which were neither described nor digitized. The digital collections team physically prepared selected CBAs. To aid long-term matching of analog to digital, each document was labeled with its file name. Brittle CBAs and those with intrinsic value relating to age, rarity, and exhibit, research, or teaching value would be left intact and photographed using a Zeutschel overhead camera. Items which were without intrinsic value and which had flexible pages were disbound so they could be digitized more quickly using a Fujitsu sheetfed scanner. Every CBA was retained in the collection. Contracts were digitized for intellectual content rather than making exact digital surrogates, saving money by not digitizing blank or duplicate pages. Cornell University Library’s Digital Consulting and Production Services (DCAPS) staff disbound approved documents, digitized all pages as tiffs, applied file names, produced pdfs which were OCR’d, and undertook 100% quality control before transferring files to the Kheel Center. Once files were approved, Catherwood Library’s digital projects team uploaded pdfs and item-level metadata to DigitalCommons@ILR and the Kheel Center technical services team used URLs from Digital Commons to update EAD finding aids with links to individual documents. All copyright-free CBAs are available online, and all tiff page files and document pdfs are preserved in the Cornell University Library Archival Repository for digital objects. A Refined Workflow The impact that digitization has on access is already evident. Since release of the first batch of education and retail CBAs in December 2014, they have been downloaded nearly 22,000 times. Lessons learned during the project have served us well in planning further digitization. We were lucky to have access statistics for print and digitized CBAs which demonstrated patterns in how they were being used. NAICS codes are invaluable industry classification tools, but code assignment is difficult. In consultation with US Census Bureau staff, we learned some of the nuances of that task and accepted that we would not always have enough information to assign the same code that the Census Bureau would. There is a sweet spot between collecting too much metadata and too little, which we perhaps missed. Had we documented which folders contain union constitutions, bylaws, and benefits brochures—documents unanticipated in a CBA collection—we could use that information to further improve our finding aids. Likewise, if we had noted handwritten contracts which could not undergo OCR, we could plan to transcribe these documents to improve access. Estimates of education and retail CBAs in the grant proposal were much lower than reality. Added CBAs required more preparation and digitization than anticipated, but we were fortunate that sheetfed scanning reduced the digitization cost per page and enabled us to disseminate nearly 70% more agreements than planned. Even with the increased workload, the DCAPS team caught missing, duplicate, illegible, and out of order pages and explained the anomalies in notes added to the published pdf. Overall the project was successful. It has helped us refine a workflow we intend to replicate in additional CBA digitization projects. The valuable information found in contracts is now available for research which could not reasonably be undertaken using paper documents. Additionally, digitization facilitates computational research techniques to make a more complex analysis of the rich content possible. Although the people who negotiate CBAs are planning for the next three to five years, the contracts benefit researchers long after they have expired.
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