I’ll admit it: I’ve always thought unions were a little passé. I just couldn’t shake the image of a typical union dude as a hard-bitten, grimy-fingered steelworker swigging black coffee spiked with gin. So despite the fact that as a public librarian I’m a dues-paying member myself, I’ve never mustered the enthusiasm to attend a meeting. I do understand how critical labor unions have been in securing the basic protections and benefits all American workers now enjoy. But it’s hard not take all that for granted; so what I wound up feeling is a vague and nostalgic appreciation for the efforts of the labor unions of yore.
Being a public employee in Wisconsin during one of the most contentious labor conflicts since that archetypal steelworker’s heyday has forced me to reexamine that impression. With thousands of union members and supporters rallying in Madison in protests reminiscent of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, the face of today’s union is plastered all over the media. That face is young, progressive, and diverse. It’s teachers and librarians as well as firefighters, nurses, sanitation workers, college students, retirees, women, and men.
It’s funny that legislation meant to malign and eviscerate unions has made me realize how vibrant and vital they can be. But my renewed respect for the critical role of collective bargaining only makes it clearer to me that, for librarians, union-busting isn’t the biggest problem. Yes, I’m angry that a politically motivated gubernatorial power grab could set back the rights and quality of life of the middle class for decades. Yes, I’m deeply worried that I, along with many others, could lose the right to have any say about my workplace. And yes, I recognize that such an outcome would be to the detriment of all working middle-class families in Wisconsin, whether employed in the public or private sectors.
But none of it triggers the almost nauseating fury I feel every time I open the newspaper.
Legislation—no matter how destructive—doesn’t last forever. Eventually, new politicians will be elected and new political theories will come into vogue; the pendulum will continue to swing between extremes with an occasional and too-brief pause in the middle. Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting is horrible and lives may be ruined needlessly in the process, but in the long-term view, it’s temporary.
What is not temporary is the effect of the governor’s favorite tactic in the service of this legislation: the vilification of public employees. It’s the old divide-and-conquer routine. By turning private employees against public ones, Walker can break up the largest constituency that might oppose his ideas. It’s a savvy political tactic, but it will cause permanent, irreparable damage for the most educated and hardworking public employees in Wisconsin and throughout the country. In order to turn the public at large on its own employees, supporters of this bill must paint us as lazy, stupid, overpaid freeloaders. They must imply that we are in our jobs only for the “sweet bennies” they provide.
Countering worthless rhetoric
I won’t apologize for making a living wage, for being able to visit a doctor when I need one, or for choosing a job that will help me build adequate retirement savings. I deserve and expect those things, as educated, passionate workers in any field should. But that’s not why I became a librarian, and I bet it’s not why you did. If we were just after a cushy lifestyle, there are easier (and let’s face it, more surefire) ways of securing one. I didn’t become a librarian to take; I became one because I wanted to give.
Librarians add incredible value to society. We help children develop the early literacy skills that will allow them to excel in school, reduce their dropout rate in high school, and continue on to higher education (and incomes). We help unemployed patrons learn the tech skills they need to find work. We provide enriching books and company to isolated seniors. We are defenders of intellectual freedom—safeguarding free, nonjudgmental access for everybody.
And those are just among the things we are asked to do.
We also do a million little things that were never in our job descriptions. Every day, we cope with patrons dealing with homelessness, mental illness, and extreme poverty—along with their ramifications. We are the default social service for those that have slipped through the cracks. I can’t imagine that anybody would take all of that on just because they want to make $40 grand a year. Like teachers, nurses, police officers, and many other public employees under fire, we do it because we understand how critically important it is.
The enduring problem here is one of value, one of respect. That’s why librarians around the country need to be upset about what’s going on in Wisconsin, whether you belong to a union or not. The governor of Wisconsin is telling us that we are worthless, that we add nothing and contribute nothing, that we are parasites and moochers.
It’s one thing to ask for monetary sacrifices; most librarians have already sacrificed money to do what we love. We’re an intelligent, educated bunch who could have pursued degrees in any number of more lucrative fields, or trotted our little MLISes right over to some hotshot tech company and doubled our salaries. It’s not the fiscal cuts in the bill that make me angry. I’m furious at the insinuation that we are nothing but takers.
Whatever state you live in, whoever your employer is, whether or not your salary and benefits are about to be slashed and burned, this insinuation hurts you immeasurably. The idea that librarians are worthless and even malicious will ding your compensation, sure; but that negative impression will also hurt the library’s overall budget, reduce the quality and quantity of every service we are able to offer, and deter people from walking in our doors.
Library advocacy, critically important during the budget crunches of the last few years, is now even more essential. We need to speak up about the value we bring to our communities. We need to have a presence at community meetings, in the newspapers, and—should it come to that—at protests. I want to see signs in Madison that say “If you can read this, thank a librarian!” I want to see news articles about the people who have found jobs using the library, who would not have internet access without us, who have used our resources to start businesses, pass classes, improve their health, connect with faraway relatives, understand their finances, learn to read. I want every person in every community to know that the library can make a positive difference in their lives.
The poisonous idea that librarians and libraries steal from their communities—and the consequently heightened need to shout our worth from the rooftops—is not confined to the states in which union-busting laws have been introduced. Ideas do not respect legislative borders. Bad budgets and bad legislation will hurt us for a time. Silent acquiescence to the idea we are valueless to our communities will hurt us forever.
AUDREY BARBAKOFF is a librarian at Milwaukee Public Library.