Library Unions Were Not Built in a Day

Fourandsixty. (2015). [International Labour Day Edit-a-Thon, University of Maryland Hornbake Library] [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Next week will be the first time I will not be working, in school, or both since August 2015. Five months ago, I saw the break coming and thought, this will be a good time to spruce up my resume, set up a number of email alerts, and network in ways other than simply showing up to whatever library position I was currently in. I even thought that I could maybe do something especially out of character and relax a tad. Now, of course, the landscape is in chaos. In my corner of the world, last week’s supposed quarantine lift came and went, and I view the new end of May proposition (if indeed that is where things currently stand, as checking the news relating to that particular topic is one of the most exhausting compulsions I have been subjected to in a long time, and the exhaustion is been winning out more of late) with as much fatalism as hope. Where once I slightly regretted my unorthodox summer graduation due to the general hiring practices of at least one local library system, now I am content to wait out for one last semester of a single course, in coding of all things. Or, at least, I hope I will be content.

What I have come to realize is that, when it comes to librarianship, and I imagine a number of other occupations, individual contentment is not enough. It is not enough in the wake of of mass firings and/or furloughs, in re-openings of institutions by management who have no reason to fear service desk front lines, in the advice to abandon the ship of a field that non-professionals feel comfortable proclaiming was dead twenty years ago. The last is an old, old story, one that was told to me as a child and played a part in sending me on a wild goose chase, equipped with the kowtowed-to assumption that money will justify everything eventually and little will of my own. However, even further back, there was a response to such tactics of singling out and rendering vulnerable whose humanitarian concerns threatened the powers that be enough to be met with capitalist militias, Pinkertons, and deportation. Librarianship is enough of a middle class concern to not have had such a deep seated investment in that corner of history, and it is those middle class concerns, so fearful, so bootstrap, so trusting in the good will of the higher ups and distrustful of one’s fellow workers, that is ultimately killing libraries.

An unfair statement, many would say. To begin with, the ALA exists, not all library employees come from cushy suburbia, and a number of library systems have strong enough union presences of their own to dictate what volunteers are permitted to do while on location. Those facts and a myriad of relevant others do not rid the field of the general instinctive reaction I have witnessed in both myself and many others to, when faced with an increasingly vulnerable economic position, pull up their stakes, draw back into their shells, and commit to the path of everyone skill-building for themselves. Yet, the field emphasizes networking, especially promoting the more sizable financial investment routes of conferences and paper presentations. Such may seem ironic, even self-defeating, but that is largely what a few years in my master’s program has taught me, and whatever lessons I picked up along the way in standing up for myself, my work, and librarianship as a whole were probably not intended.

Long story short, I am considering joining the International Workers of the World Union, which looks to me to be a solid and widely available introduction to community-building activities if there ever was one. Being both unemployed and a student would give me the lowest monthly due available, and considering how much money I am involuntarily saving on a minimizing my driving and eating out, it would hardly be burden. And yet, I hesitate. Despite all the realities that COVID-19 has exposed regarding the situation of every worker, especially those who are called essential and treated as expendable, I hesitate. Despite the real good I have seen library unions do when it comes to guaranteed hours, pay, and health care, I hesitate. Despite the existence of weekends, the forty-hour work week, overtime pay, and much more that was won only through the sweat, tears, and blood of union workers, I hesitate. For some reason, though, it is easier to consider when I think that, I am not doing this for myself. I am doing it for the libraries. Will you?

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