Administration at the Ferndale Area District Library in metro Detroit worked hard to protect library workers from COVID-19. The building was closed to the public from March 2020 to June 2021 and workers “never paid for PPE,” says Mary Grahame Hunter, a Ferndale youth librarian. “The safety of workers was 100 percent prioritized.” But Hunter and her colleagues say that trusting in a good boss is not enough. In early December, 17 of 22 eligible library workers announced their decision to join the Newspaper Guild of Detroit. As they wait to hear if the board will voluntarily recognize the new bargaining unit, they are prepared for an election. “Without a union,” says Hunter, “we’re crossing our fingers.”
Hunter and her colleagues join a wave of unionization in the library sector. Last December, Baltimore County Public Library workers organized with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, ratifying their first contract in May 2022. That same month, library workers at Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, Missouri, voted to form the first library union in the state. Workers at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore won recognition in November with a staggering 218-12 vote. Libraries in the higher education sector have seen similar wins with new unions at the University of Michigan, the Claremont Colleges and Northwestern University. And the sector is increasingly preparing for large scale strike action. Library faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago authorized a strike in November. University of Washington library workers conducted a one-day work stoppage in October.
Wages and working conditions are, as expected, at the heart of much of this new organizing. In the wake of the pandemic, many library workers see workplace safety as an essential demand. A study by the Public Library Association confirmed that most libraries closed their doors to patrons in the first weeks and months of the pandemic, but that wasn’t true in all cases. In Idaho Falls, Idaho, the library director maintained open building hours, citing the acute need for access to library computers to do things like apply for unemployment insurance. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered libraries to keep physical buildings open as crucial “gathering places” and “safety nets” for the public, despite the risk to library workers, ceding to AFSCME Council 31 demands only when Gov. J.B. Pritzker implemented a stay at home order. Indeed, as Hunter says, “One of the reasons a coworker joined the union is that she was in another library and was treated terribly.”
In an era of rising extremist violence, workplace safety must also address threats of harm from would-be censors who bring guns to protest materials and programming that acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ+ people. From Proud Boys bringing rifles to a children’s story time to extremists showing up with weapons to a library board meeting in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, to a pattern of bomb threats targeting major urban library systems, library workers are in some cases rightly scared of going to work.
Just as they pushed for better ventilation, PPE and necessary building closures, library workers need to organize around the threat these extremists pose to their capacity to do their jobs safely. The library director in Idaho and Chicago’s mayor are not wrong: Libraries are necessary social infrastructure, sites for the distribution of social goods and among the last remaining public squares. But the library cannot function without its workers, and those workers must be protected. As tools for shaping worker demands and structured processes for both labor and management to develop solutions to pressing workplace problems, unions offer one way of pushing back against extremists in the library. And if we push back against extremists in the library, where they are right now, we push back against the rise of extremism everywhere. As Hunter told the Detroit Metro Times, “There has been an enormous hike in censorship from hostile library boards, and seeing that really made me say, ‘You know what, a union safeguards workers.” And if the union can safeguard library workers, it can safeguard us all.
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