Practice Self-Care by Joining a Union

When you hear the word “union”, what comes to mind? Do you think about dockworkers and miners, police officers and construction workers? If you like celebrity news, you’ve heard about the Screen Actors Guild; or if social justice is your thing, you might be familiar with the different movements to unionize farm and retail workers. Maybe you’ve been affected by a strike, when your local nurses or transit workers have been negotiating a new contract and aren’t able to reach an agreement with their employers. Possibly you’ve even been a union member, but never really thought about it beyond another line item on your pay stub and the reason that coworker you don’t like still has a job. But unions could be important to you not only in your future library career, but as a library school student as well. So what are unions and why should you care?

(This article is about unions in the United States, which is a different animal than unions elsewhere. Readers will be unsurprised to learn that US labor law is heavily pro-business.)

Workers’ unions are collective bargaining units. What that means to the average worker is that instead of negotiating individually with an employer for salary and benefits, the union negotiates on behalf of all of its members at the same time. If you have a job where you’re not in a union, usually what happens is you get a raise as part of your yearly review. This is, in theory, based upon your seniority and performance as an employee. In some workplaces you can argue for a bigger raise, or for a higher starting salary when you’re first hired. In others, notably retail and the service industries, you get what you get and you’d better like it. Employers are also free to decide other parts of your compensation package, such as what vacation you get and how much they’re going to charge you for health insurance.

In a unionized workplace, instead of individualized raises and yearly increases in healthcare premiums, there is a contract between the union members and the employer laying out wages, raises, and benefits, regardless of performance. (The contract lays out other things, too, of equal importance to compensation. I focus on money because that’s the easiest access point for many people. See the links at the bottom of this article for more information) Every five years or so a team from the union will sit down with a team from the employer and hash out a new contract. This is often a contentious time and when strikes usually happen, if things aren’t going well at the bargaining table.

The big national unions like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) are mostly umbrella institutions, concerning themselves with government lobbying and federal lawsuits. They may also provide support in the form of advice or specialized negotiators for serious contract disputes. Most unions, however, are much smaller. All the nurses in one hospital or all the teachers in a single school district will make up a union “local”. Many workplaces will have several different unions: the hospital may have one for the janitors and another for security workers in addition to the nurses’ union, for example. The administration of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has contracts with twenty different unions, four of them for academic personnel. One of these is the Graduate Employee’s Organization (GEO), a local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the union I belong to as a graduate assistant.

Graduate student unions aren’t active on every campus, but check to see if there’s one at your university, especially if you hold an assistantship. There’s been a recent court decision (Janus v. AFSCME) that changes how money is collected from employees covered by a contract- the short version is that now you have to opt in to becoming a paying member. I strongly encourage you to do this, for two reasons: a strong union benefits you directly, and it’s a direct and tangible way to benefit people with less privilege than you. My union dues are about $40 a month, which sounds like a lot until you hear that my take-home pay is over $1700 a month. For a part-time job. That’s enough for a person to live on in this area. My health insurance is paid for, I get paid holidays and sick days. If I were an Illinois resident my tuition would be covered; as it is, I get half waived, plus some fees. The university doesn’t provide all of this out of the goodness of their heart, or because library students are so valuable they’ll pay through the nose to retain them. They do it because several years ago enough people with assistantships from all over campus got together and negotiated a contract. Sure, it’d be great if education were free for all, but it’s not yet, and in the meantime joining and participating in a union is another way to help make universities affordable.

Maybe there isn’t a union you can join right now, or maybe you find my arguments unconvincing. You should still familiarize yourself with the union basics, because the odds are pretty good that you’ll need to know them in your career as a librarian. Part or all of the staff you manage may be unionized, and it’s good to know what you can and cannot do as a supervisor in those cases. You may have the opportunity to be part of a union yourself, particularly in academic libraries. Check out the links below to learn more.

Click here for a short article about the benefits of joining a union.

Click here for a short article about a different approach to unionizing.

Click here for a podcast about the post office shootings of the 1990s and how the union helped stop them.

Click here for the website for the Labor and Working-Class History Association.

Featured photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Emily is a first-year graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She recommends this article for relationship goals, if only because she wants to date someone whose response to a relationship slump is to study Marx together.

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