Contract Concerns

Unions protect library workers, but are they keeping us from reaching teens?

November 1, 2019

Youth Matters: Linda W. Braun

Unions make it hard for library staffers to work effectively with youth of color.” That’s what a library colleague recently said to me over coffee. I sat silently for a few seconds, thinking about this statement and how it could be true.

The American Library Association–Allied Professional Association’s Library Worklife site states: “Union contracts often provide for fair and flexible working hours, better pay for overtime and work on evenings and weekends, more paid holidays, paid family and medical leave, and employer help with child care and elder care.” These conditions are undoubtedly important. But when talking with library staffers about the unintended consequences of union contracts on their work, I recognized the phrase “fair and flexible” was likely the root of the problem my colleague was thinking about—in part, because youth needs have changed over the last two decades.

What constitutes “fair and flexible” in library contracts does not readily align with the outreach-centered approaches today’s youth library workers must take to reach underserved and marginalized individuals and communities. As a library consultant in Georgia told me, “Job descriptions and contracts are written based on where the profession is at the moment, but how can they focus on the future?” I’d go even further: Many youth library workers are asked to comply with roles and rules based on where the profession was in the past.

Consider the library staffer in Washington who told me she’d been invited by a student to attend his high school play. The play took place after her regular working hours, as outlined in the union contract. She knows that connecting with youth does not always fall into a 9-to-5, or library-as-retail-operation, framework. But she felt that if she mentioned to her coworkers or supervisor that attending an after-hours event could build stronger relationships with area teens, the reaction wouldn’t be positive. What did the staffer do? She went to the play but didn’t tell anyone she works with.

Library staffers should work with unions to rewrite contracts and job descriptions—that are flexible and mission-driven—to preserve what is vital to the community and serve those who are most difficult to reach.

Work hours have come up again and again in my conversations with library workers, as have staffing models. A library director in Rhode Island told me that, because of union contracts, it is often difficult to use volunteers to help provide services. “Union contracts can limit libraries from taking on volunteers—who may be youth of color—to help with library work,” said the director. “These potential volunteers could eventually become future library staffers if they are permitted to take part in the core work.”

Contracts and staffing models are meant to preserve fairness. But narrowly defining the work that librarians and paraprofessionals can do means needed flexibility and valuable talent can be lost. What if contracts allowed volunteers and nondegreed staffers to do tasks usually reserved for librarians? This could bring unique expertise and life experiences into the library. It would also allow librarians to spend more time in the community and to envision and plan the best youth services possible. Nonlibrarians might require training, but librarians could then do more tasks commensurate with a position held by someone with a master’s degree.

Embracing new roles and strategies to build services for youth does not need to be at odds with unions’ traditional approach to collective bargaining and contracts. In conversation with a union official, I was reminded of how, in 2016, library staffers in Rockford, Illinois, worked successfully with their union to bring back Sunday hours that had been cut. Library staffers should work with unions to rewrite contracts and job descriptions—that are flexible and mission-driven—to preserve what is vital to the community and serve those who are most difficult to reach.

As a teen services coordinator in Kansas told me, “I was thinking that I would love to ask unions to put teens first, as the Young Adult Library Services Association works to do. That doesn’t have to be antithetical to a union’s mission to protect its members, and [unions] probably don’t think it is.” The challenge, then, is to modernize contracts to strike a balance between the needs of underserved and marginalized youth and unionized library staff.


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