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Staffing America's Libraries: Big Changes, Big Challenges

AFSCME's library workers are fighting for recognition and respect as they adjust to the increasing demands of the digital age.

By Jon Melegrito

For well over 300 years, American libraries have provided valuable information to countless millions of users and been a mainstay of strong communities. But over the last four decades, the shift from an economy based on services to one based on knowledge delivery has been dramatically redefining the role of libraries. Computer technology and the Internet have turned "book boxes" into "electronic doorways," altering the nature of library work.

The transition from print to electronic information, which started in the 1990s, is a prime example of the change. Today, library patrons are overwhelmed with millions of pages of information available on the web. Library workers' traditional duties have been reinvented by this rapidly changing electronic environment. At the same time, the workers' new skills and expertise aren't being justly compensated — due in large measure to an almost-perpetual funding crisis in libraries and a profession that has long been primarily dominated by women.

AFSCME represents more than 10,000 members working in libraries nationwide, with large numbers employed at colleges and universities including: Harvard, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Maryland, University of Minnesota, Ohio University, Oregon Health and Science University, Princeton and University of Wisconsin.

NO $ EQUITY. The American Library Association (ALA) cites the economy as the biggest problem in achieving pay equity. When times are tough, library funding is always on the chopping block. And yet, when the economy is down, library use always goes up.

New York libraries, for instance, have gone without a state funding increase for the past eight years and endured a $4.5 million cut imposed by the governor in 2004. To increase funding for school and community libraries across the state, both DC 37 and the Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME Local 1000 recently lobbied legislators for support.

Over the years, AFSCME has been on the front line in the fight for fair and equitable salaries for library workers. In 1981, those at the San Jose Public Library — members of Council 57's Local 101 — took part in a weeklong strike over pay equity, forcing the city to agree to a 15 percent "comparable-worth" increase. San Jose library workers are now among the best paid in the country.

Eight years ago, at the Boston Public Library, Local 1526 (Council 93) proposed a job upgrade for all branch-library assistants. "The scope of services we provide because of automation has changed, and so have our responsibilities," explains Elissa Cadillic, president of the local and head of the negotiating team. In 2004, after another round of contract talks and a walkout by the negotiating team, the city finally agreed to the upgrades. Virginia Grant, a library assistant at Boston's Faneuil Branch, was among those who got promoted. "This was a morale booster," she says. "We're no longer being left behind."

For its feat, Local 1526 won an award this year from the Allied Professional Association of the ALA, along with a cash prize of $3,000. The award is given annually to the person or group that has made an outstanding contribution to improving the salary and status of library workers. The local plans to use the money to fund programs promoting members' education and career advancement. Also sharing the honors was Eileen Muller, president of the Brooklyn Library Guild, AFSCME Local 1482 (DC 37). She received an honorable mention for her 10-year effort that successfully increased the wages of more than 950 professional librarians. Muller's next step is to upgrade support-staff positions so that they are in line with others across the country.

DC 37's Local 1930, which represents librarians and clerical workers in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, is undertaking a similar campaign for pay equity. Local Pres. Lynn Taylor led her members in a picket early this year.

Part-time employees, who comprise a large segment of the workforce in public and academic libraries, are also speaking up about unfair treatment. A few years ago, members of Local 2083 (Council 2) successfully negiotiated a contract, which preserved health insurance and other benefits that had been denied part-timers. At Oregon's Multnomah County Library, Local 88 (Council 75) recently halted a "Teen Intern" recruitment program that was essentially paying minimum wage, with no benefits, to non-union workers who were performing the duties of regular staff. Recalls Sean O'Brien, a library clerk and local shop steward, "Management was more interested in supplementing the unionized workforce with cheap labor than in filling vacant positions."

GETTING ASSERTIVE. Library workers have often made advances through alliances with their administrators. "Faced with the constant threat of budget cuts, we have a common interest in making the library a higher priority for funding," says Susan Veltfort, president of Local 1857 (Council 2), which represents 550 librarians, library assistants and technicians in the King County Public Library system - Washington state's largest. "Through the grievance process and regular labor/management meetings, we have been able to assert ourselves in policy matters from staff restructuring to scheduling."

Professional librarians, for their part, are increasingly exercising leverage in joint committees to further their goals. Apart from the issue of salary, one major concern is management's attempts to diminish the staff's important role. "Traditionally, we make book selections based on our expertise," says Linda Saunto, a longtime reference librarian at the Seattle Public Library and executive vice president of Local 2083. "We want to continue having a say in order to ensure collection quality."

In Oregon's Multnomah County, librarians recently stopped management's scheme to add a set of special skills for their peers who deal with books for youths. "In effect, they would become a separate class in our system," says Peter Ford of the Gresham branch, a member of Local 88. "This would have kept non-'youth' librarians from bumping into that pool if their jobs were eliminated."

Library organizing moves steadily ahead. In June 2004, workers in Whitewater, Wis., joined Council 40, followed by employees of libraries in the Connecticut towns of Hamden, Milford, Derby and Cheshire, who formed a union with Council 4. "We are looking for the ability to advocate for ourselves," says Bill Basel, who led the Cheshire organizing drive. "There are major changes coming. With a union, we will have leverage to discuss issues that affect both our personal lives and the community."

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