In 1977, Stephen C. Vladeck, a New York labor attorney, Ben Josephson, the Director of the Tamiment institute, and Harry Van Arsdale, Jr., the president of the New York City Central Labor Council (CLC), Charlton Rochelle, Dean of New York University's Division of Libraries came together to create the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Recognizing the need to preserve New York's labor heritage, they sought to establish a repository to preserve the historical records of the City's labor movement. With a grant from National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives was formally established in 1979 and launched a major survey project to identify the labor movement's historically important records that were very much at risk.
The archive was named after Robert F. Wagner, Sr. (1877-1953). As a New York Senator from 1927 to 1949 and as a member of the State Supreme Court, Wagner sponsored many of the labor laws and reform legislation that defined the New Deal. He is best known for the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that guaranteed the right to collective bargaining.
The Tamiment Library, a special collection at NYU, devoted to the history of labor and radical politics, was the ideal site for the Wagner Labor Archives. Tamiment traces its origins to the Rand School, a pioneering worker education program that was established by the Socialist Society of New York in 1906. In the mid-1920s the Rand School established a trade union institute that trained the first generation of professional union organizers and administrators. Shortly thereafter the School began working with the American Federation of Labor to develop a strategy for preserving the movement's archives. In the early 1940s it established the Labor Archives and Research Institute (LARI) to promote this labor archives idea to the leaders of both the AFL and CIO as well as in the scholarly community. After the war the LARI established a clearing house for labor records with an ambitious agenda, but with almost no financial support. These years saw the beginnings of the labor archive project, as the Rand School acquired the records of the United, Hatters, Cap, and Millinery Workers and the Records of the League for Industrial Democracy. With the founding of Labor History in 1960 the Rand School placed the labor archives question squarely before the labor movement, the scholarly and archival communities.
When the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives project began founding archivist Debra Bernhardt very quickly built strong relationships with unions throughout the city. As a daughter of unionized school teachers, she understood the importance of preserving the history and movements of labor in New York and the value these resources could have for working people and scholars. She built a rich collection with the idea that the Wagner could be the repository for the historical memory of the labor movement in New York City.
In 1979 the Tunnel Workers Union, Local 147, became the first Union to donate its records to the Wagner. This was followed in quick succession by the Social Service Employees Union, Local 371, the United Taxi Workers Organizing Committee, and United Automobile Workers, District Council 37. Today, the Wagner holds the records of over 270 labor unions and allied organizations. It is recognized as one of the most important repositories for labor union records in the United States.