Libraries are great places to work, generally speaking, especially for book lovers. On top of the satisfaction I derive from engaging with patrons, I’m grateful my library offers tangible employment benefits like fair compensation with guaranteed yearly wage increases and paid time off. It also confers a measure of dignity and respect and a voice in decision-making processes. This has not always been the case for us. We, the library’s workers, created the conditions that made this possible when we formed our first union and negotiated our first contract in 2020.
Here are some strategies that helped us along the way:
Talk with colleagues. Building worker power begins when workers talk with one another about their experiences on the job. When my colleagues and I started talking more, we realized that many of us shared the same issues and were able to discuss what we believed to be the root causes of those issues. We shared our visions for how we might address them and what a better workplace could look like.
We learned a great deal about one another during these discussions. We learned that though many of us had strong feelings about problems at work, some did not believe anything would ever change. Some of us knew something had to be done but were afraid to speak up or take action.
Contact a union. Once we were ready to implement our vision, we reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, which represents a sizable group of workers at a district library in our area. The union put us in contact with one of its organizers, who helped us form an organizing committee and offered guidance as we built workplace unity and leadership. We came to understand that having both a committee and an organizer kept us motivated and accountable throughout the process.
Accept that the fight is never over. Once an overwhelming majority of library staffers signed up for the union, we asked our library administration to voluntarily recognize us. Many employers resist this ask and instead push for an election. This happened to us, but because we had already built majority support and maintained workplace unity, we won the election handily.
After the election, we moved into what became a roughly yearlong process of negotiating our first contract. Our bargaining team included representatives from each of the main areas of work: circulation, tech services, and librarians. This broad representation was key to our strength and resonance with fellow workers. Though the final contract does not reflect every single change we believed would make for a better workplace, our bargaining team fought hard for and won key victories, including contractual protections from arbitrary discipline, among other wins.
During our final push for a fair contract, we invited the public to speak at a library board meeting in support of our efforts. Workers from three different libraries, representing both public and academic libraries, came out in support.
I am heartened by the increasing visibility of workplace organizing—especially among part-time service workers, a category that describes many public-facing library workers—and the resources developed to assist others. The ALA–Allied Professional Association explicitly names unionization as a resource and strategy to improve library worker salaries and status, and its website provides information on how to start a union. I have also relied greatly on the resources, information, and news provided by the media and organizing group Labor Notes, especially its indispensable book, Secrets of a Successful Organizer.
None of us would claim that building worker power is easy or comfortable, but meaningful change rarely is. These conversations are happening at libraries across the country, and more people are understanding—as my fellow workers and I do—that collective power is a public good.