American Labor Movement and Libraries

American Labor Movement and Libraries

Labor unions are important, democratic, organizations that protect the rights of workers in the country. Unions are usually a group of workers who come together to stand up for their own rights but to also help further their interests and the interests of other workers like themselves. They achieve their goals through a collective bargaining process with employers and this results in things like better working conditions, pay, benefits, etc.

Library workers in many states have their own unions that help them organize and protect their workplace rights. These organizations can be in a public library, school library, or academic library setting. The protection of rights for any worker should be a priority and especially so for library workers who play an important role in one of the most democratic institutions in the country. Unions have been able to aid library workers using a collective voice, receiving more public support than ever.

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Unions in Different Library Settings

Unions are a beneficial option for library workers and put plenty of work into pushing for better wages and working conditions. They take into account the opinions of those working in the field to decide what steps they will take next. For example, librarians at the University of California realized they didn’t have intellectual freedom protections in their work contracts which was odd considering this was the very thing they advocated for on behalf of their patrons. This problem was discovered when academic librarians were getting disciplined for things such as presentation titles used at conferences. The union that worked on behalf of these librarians was able to recognize the need for protection and began working on negotiating new terms in future contracts.

When unions are involved, library workers have a better chance at having an improved work environment because unions are specifically focused on the working conditions of library staff. It was found that librarians and library workers who were members of unions not only earned more than non-union members, they were also more likely to have retirement plans, health insurance, and paid sick leave. According to the Department for Professional Employees (DPE), librarian union members earned 38 percent more and union library assistants earned 48 percent more than non-union counterparts. Additionally, around 20 percent more people who had union memberships had access to necessities like health insurance, retirement plans, and paid sick leave.

Library Union Facts and Doings

There are a number of umbrella organizations that house local and national library unions. A few include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and AFSCME which have local library unions and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) which oversees 57 different unions in the United States. The AFL-CIO site gives a great breakdown of what unions advocate for. A recent report released by the organization showed that over a third of library workers are members of a union which is one of the highest unionization rates in any profession.

There is plenty of action going on in library unions with new priorities emerging all of the time. Libraries across the country are also focused on unionizing and even excited to become the first library union in their state. For example, The University of Washington Libraries recently won their union and staff members were able to officially join SEIU 925 as union cardholders and the Niles-Maine District Library employees organized their union with the AFSCME. Other library unions are already working to fight on behalf of library workers, participating in activities from strikes to negotiations. The Union Library Workers site keeps updated news about library union-related activity.

Successful Library Unions

Unions have made incredible and beneficial contributions to the lives of library staff. There are endless amounts of good stories to come out of the work that unions have done. In Los Angeles, for example, teachers, librarians, and other educational professionals went on strike to negotiate a pay increase as well as a staffing increase. This filled an important need for the schools in the area because it meant that every secondary school in Los Angeles would have a full-time librarian as well as sufficient numbers of school nurses, mental health professionals, and counselors.

The Queens Library Guild (Local 1321) has consistently fought for and secured the best wages, benefits, and working conditions for its members. “Since so much of public service workers’ rights, benefits and funding are impacted by the actions of elected officials,” according to the Guild, “We maintain a strong presence in the corridors of government, fighting to protect our members and holding politicians accountable for their actions.” It is this kind of consistent engagement that unions are well known for.

A university in California also came to new agreements after librarians represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) called for new additions to their contracts. They were able to secure pay raises between 22.4 and 25.9 percent over a five-year period as well as protections for librarians. The new contract protected the academic freedom of librarians, allowed them to use sick days for parental leave, and ensured they would have noticed if new responsibilities were added to their position.

For K-12 school librarians across the country, the AFT and NEA are important allies. In Washington, D.C., WTU Local 6 - the Washington Teachers Union- is actively supporting the future of over 120 school librarian jobs in the face of ‘excessing’. This included direct advocacy with the city council and Chancellor’s office. Their recent rally and petition drew a lot of attention to the unique and high-impact role that school librarians play. Likewise, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is a leader in the labor movement’s support for school librarians. Their state house of delegates has put a focus on the future of school librarian jobs within the organization, and that translates to policy and budget issues in the legislature and local school district contracts.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Labor Unions

The pandemic has also caused immense changes to the workforce. Virus-related concerns made it difficult for people to physically be at their workplace. Unions worked this past year to also ensure that library workers were afforded the same rights that independent companies were allowing their workers to have. Major concerns that library workers had included not being able to be in the workplace due to personal illness and fear of contracting the virus. This is when library unions stepped in and implemented policies for libraries to adhere to.

Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had library staff who were able to quickly mobilize in this situation because of the recently-organized union. Due to the work of the union, they were able to successfully obtain pandemic-related rights for library professionals. They demanded that library employees did not need to report to the library’s physical location and would be able to be paid whether or not they were able to work remotely. With these in place, library workers could feel comfort in knowing that they would continue to make a living while also remaining safe.

Augsburg University in Minnesota also had staff organize a union in order to tackle the upcoming problems that would be associated with the pandemic. After unionizing, they were able to find methods to make their voices heard when it came to university decisions. As a result, staff members including librarians would have input on layoffs, pay cuts, and reopening plans related to COVID-19.

Unions play an important role in libraries all across the country. Being able to use a collective voice to bring about positive change to a worker’s position is an important right to have and union organizing gives librarians and other library staff the opportunity to do so.