Library Workers Unite!
As a library student and unionmember (UAW 4121, representing UW’s Academic Student Employees) I have been following with great interest the library workers' strike in Vancouver, BC, which ended October 23, 2007 after 88 days on the picket line.
CUPE Local 391 represents 771 workers, both professional and support staff, across all 22 branches of the Vancouver Public Library system. When they walked off the job along with the city's other public sector unions in July, it was the first strike in the union's 77-year history.
In addition to demands for long-overdue wage and benefit increases, a central demand of the strike was pay equity. As a female-dominated field, library workers are routinely paid less than those with similar jobs elsewhere. According to the union's research, entry-level municipal jobs that are traditionally male have wages that are up to 38% higher than entry-level library jobs. This disparity is further exacerbated by the large number of library workers who only have part-time positions. In Ontario, where the legislature passed pay equity legislation, library assistants saw a $5000 increase in salary, while senior librarians received a $10,000 increase.
Despite these obviously reasonable demands, the city of Vancouver refused to budge for weeks. Nonetheless, the union held strong and even incorporated some creative library tactics, such as holding a "read-in" as part of their picket at the central library. Eventually, a mediator was brought in to settle the strike, but workers voted overwhelmingly to reject his initial recommendations, until stronger language about pay equity was included. The final settlement is not perfect, but includes significant wage and benefit hikes, as well as establishing a committee to look into rectifying pay inequality. It will be important for the union to use its new-found strength to make sure the committee's investigation is followed by action. Meanwhile, library workers in Victoria, BC continue to strike for similar demands.
Unions in the US can learn from this example. With solidarity and determination it is possible to win demands, even in an era of budget cuts and union-busting. All too many union leaders here have been willing to compromise away their members' rights without a fight.
Library workers in the US have the highest unionization rate of any occupation, at 37 percent. This is still too low, especially given that like all public sector workers, they face the ongoing assault of budget cuts and privatization. In Jackson County, Oregon, public libraries have been signed over to private management. Officials claim that this will be an effective cost-saving measure, but according to the Associated press, "The libraries will be open a total of only 24 hours a week, compared with 40-plus hours for most branches before the shutdown. And [the company] plans to hire 50 to 60 full-time employees, down from 88 under county management."
It is not just library workers who suffer from this downsizing, but all ordinary people who depend of the public library as a source of free information and public services. According to a recent study by the American Library Association, 73% of libraries report that they are only provider of free public internet access in their communities. Two-thirds of all Americans visited their public library last year, and 8 in 10 Americans agree that their public libraries deserve more funding.
Our libraries, schools and other public services are worth fighting for-- and the people who provide these services can play a pivotal role in leading this struggle.