Skip to main content

Library workers reflect on why they formed a union and how it’s improving the workplace

Library workers reflect on why they formed a union and how it’s improving the workplace
By Jane Billinger and AFSCME Staff ·

COLUMBIA, Mo. – In recognition of National Library Week, AFSCME President Lee Saunders issued a statement honoring library workers’ hard work and underscoring their need for a voice on the job and a seat at the table to improve their working conditions and better serve their communities.

“These front-line heroes are facing both budget cuts and censorship threats that hurt their ability to protect their communities and preserve our freedoms. If that’s not enough, widespread staffing shortages are making library workers’ jobs harder than ever,” Saunders said. “This National Library Week, we must respond to this moment by continuing to organize for respect and dignity.”

Two Missouri library workers echoed Saunders’ sentiments and put a human face on the challenges facing library workers nationwide.

Rowan Walsh, a library assistant, and Carolyn Cain, a branch outreach lead, are among those who formed Daniel Boone Regional Library Workers United (DBRLWU) — the only library union in Missouri. Walsh and Cain, who are helping negotiate their union’s first contract with management, took a break from negotiations to discuss why they formed a union and what it means for them and other cultural workers in Missouri and elsewhere.


Carolyn Cain. Photo credit: Jane Billinger

Question: Why did you form the union?

Walsh: I formed a union because the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated so many issues within our library. I wanted my job to be a better place to work, but I didn’t know how long I’d be able to afford to keep working here. Systemic problems require systemic change, and a union seemed like our only chance to make the changes to improve our workplace, and actually be heard and listened to. And as a trans employee, in a state that is increasingly hostile to people like me, I am all too aware of the lack of support received in the face of transphobic and homophobic behavior. I do not want others to have the experiences that I have. I want to leave a better, healthier workplace behind me.

Cain: I started working at the Daniel Boone Regional Library 36 years ago. I envisioned it as a stopgap until I would go into teaching. But my job in Outreach Services captured a passion in me that I had never felt before. It excited me to be working in (what I thought was) one of the most democratic institutions in our culture. This was an assumption that was quickly dispelled. It became apparent that the management was in fact quite autocratic. Most staff had very little input into matters that concerned us. The general feeling was do what you are told and don’t question it. There were a small number of us who pushed back on that concept and got some little concessions, but it was not enough. Frustration and resentment had spread within the ranks of the staff. Decisions were being made that had huge impacts on the staff, yet our opinions were rarely taken into consideration.


Rowan Walsh. Photo credit: Jane Billinger

Question: What is your role in the union now and why did you choose it?

Walsh: I didn’t organize just to organize — I organized to get a strong, fair contract. I’m on the DBRLWU bargaining team because I want to stay here in Columbia. I want to afford to live in the community I work in, and I want to be able to afford the health care I need, and I want better for my amazing co-workers. We’re strongest together, we deserve to be heard, and I’m not stopping now.

Cain: My spouse had been in a union most of her working life, and I saw the differences that a union made. I would often think, ‘We need a union,’ but never thought it would come into fruition. Then the pandemic hit and work life changed drastically. Several of our staff had a vision and energy that began pushing us towards a concept of the union. I am honored to be a part of the team currently bargaining our very first union contract. Already the establishment of a union has had so many positive results. Changes are being made that have been issues for years. I believe because of these changes, our membership continues to hold steady and staff are more encouraged than ever through our union negotiations.

Question: The Missouri House has given initial approval to a budget that would cut state aid for public libraries. This is in retribution for libraries suing to overturn a state law that calls for censoring some library content. How has your union given you the power to fight this censorship?

Walsh: We’re taking a stand against censorship by speaking out against it and encouraging others to make their voices heard. Missouri’s book bans, library funding cuts and other bigoted legislation do the most damage to our most marginalized communities. Staying neutral in this fight is cowardly and silence is compliance in these attacks on libraries and Missourians.  Libraries were my refuge as a child, and I believe all of us deserve that space to learn, to interact and to simply exist.

Cain: The union has also provided a means to have an organized response to the current wave of censorship that is hitting our country. We have an opportunity to communicate to the public in a way that is so much more effective and provides a broader base to get our positions out on this important topic.

Related Posts