Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Staff Votes To Unionize

On August 14, staff members of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) voted 173–106 to form a union for more than 300 full- and part-time workers. Library staff, who organized as the United Library Workers Committee (ULW) in summer 2018, will now become part of Allegheny County–based United Steelworkers, and will negotiate a collected bargaining agreement with CLP management.

United Library Workers logoOn August 14, staff members of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) voted 173–106 to form a union for more than 300 full- and part-time workers. Library staff, who organized as the United Library Workers Committee (ULW) in summer 2018, will now become part of Allegheny County–based United Steelworkers, and will negotiate a collected bargaining agreement with CLP management.

Discussions about the possibility of joining a union had been brewing at the library for a while, Rachel Masilamani told LJ. A part-time librarian at CLP’s Downtown & Business Branch and a ten-year veteran of the system, Masilamani found herself frustrated that her ideas weren’t being heard by management. “I would often give input, but I wouldn't see the impact,” she said. “When I stepped back and thought about it, I realized that the structure wasn't really in place for my voice to be heard as a frontline staffer.”

Unionization seemed like a good option, Masilamani felt, because it had the potential to pull together staff across the system’s 19 branches.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 professionals working in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rate for any professional occupation group—33.8 percent. Barry T. Hirsch and David A. MacPherson note in the upcoming edition of Union Membership and Earnings Data Book that in 2018, 21.1 percent of librarians were union members, down from the 26.2 percent membership rate in 2017 (the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees [DPE] notes that the sample size for this statistic is very small, however, so the rate of decline may not be fully representative).

Hirsch and MacPherson also state that in 2018, librarians who were union members earned 38 percent more per week than their non-union counterparts, and library assistants’ hourly wages were 48 percent higher. In 2009, the last year comparative data was available, union library technicians earned 49 percent more than their non-union counterparts. (DPE notes, “While this statistic is also subject to volatility due to the sample size, trends in the data show that it pays to be a union librarian.”)

GETTING ORGANIZED

When she reached out to the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers (USW), she discovered that union representatives were already speaking with several other CLP employees.

Although a steelworkers’ trade union may not seem an obvious choice for a library, USW represents a wide range of professional industries, including health care workers, educators, and public employees. And it’s a hometown organization. “We have a rich history in the Pittsburgh region,” noted USW organizer Chris Wike, who has been working with the library committee. “A lot of people have family members who were, at one time or another, members of the Steelworkers." In addition, Masilamani pointed out, CLP founder and namesake Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the Pittsburgh steel industry.

USW also has a reputation for working closely with its members, taking a flexible approach based on their needs and offering a high degree of bargaining control for individual locals. The CLP employees “know what their work looks like and what their needs are, and what they would want to bargain for, potentially,” Wike told LJ. “Our expertise is in the organizing process: how to build the structure of a union, how to reach out to coworkers and have conversations about concerns and issues that people are facing. And we have the legal expertise—labor law and how to negotiate that institutional structure."

The original five or six staff members who had contacted USW began talking to one another in summer 2018, and as they continued to meet, their numbers swelled to more than 50 library workers.

“We listened to what our coworkers thought could be improved,” said Masilamani. “A couple of themes emerged, especially regarding clearer ways of understanding how promotion works, [and] people working part-time who would like to be full-time getting a clearer pathway forward.” Benefits were an issue as well, as part-time workers—about 40 percent of CLP’s public service staff—have no health care coverage, vacation time, sick time, or paid holidays; workers also wanted to ensure that they could bring suggestions or grievances to management and be heard without fear of retribution.

CLP’s drivers and environmental service workers are already represented by the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), respectively, but some 350 staff members—including librarians, library assistants, clerks, and IT professionals—were not unionized at the time. The group officially joined together as ULW, and began reaching out coworkers to explain why they wanted to unionize and what it would entail—and also to listen to their thoughts and concerns. “Nobody was trying to push anyone into any decisions,” said Masilamani. “We all just wanted to discuss what could be."

Many staff members were enthusiastic about organizing, but some expressed trepidation. "There are some anxious feelings,” noted Masilamani. “You can't see how things will turn out. When you put your faith in the democratic process, [the outcome] might not be exactly what you [hoped for]—but it will be something that you choose together with people who are in the same boat as you.”

After holding conversations for most of a year, ULW decided in June that it was time to officially launch its unionization campaign, and in mid-July it filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. Authorization cards, which officially stated that eligible members were willing to bring the matter to a vote, were filled out and collected.

As staff prepared for the vote, the Community and Students for Academic Workers, a coalition of local undergraduate students and community members, organized a petition in support of ULW’s efforts and delivered it to CLP. The petition, bearing more than 1,000 signatures, called on library management to operate in good faith and “not to spend public resources (public funds or donations) on anti-union consultants or anything that could be construed as anti-union activity.”

The petition also requested that “CLP to maintain a neutral environment, free of harassment and intimidation, to refrain from holding mandatory captive audience meetings, and to respect the library workers’ right to choose to form a union.”

Votes were tallied at CLP’s Main Library in the Oakland neighborhood to cheers from ULW members; more than 60 percent of the library’s eligible workers voted to unionize.

NEGOTIATIONS AHEAD

Next, library workers and USW will negotiate their first contract. The union will offer guidance, and will help ULW circulate a survey among their colleagues to find out more about their priorities.

Masilamani is eager for the process to begin. “I think it's going to be the kind of work that librarians love,” she told LJ. “We're going to argue, I'm sure, and the contract will be stronger for that process. But I think it's something we're going to be good at. Those skills are in line with the values that library workers already have—attention to detail without losing sight of the big picture."

In a statement from the library, CLP Manager of Communications Suzanne Thinnes said, “Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh values all of our staff and recognizes that their service and contributions are critical to our mission. Understandably, this has been an emotional and challenging time. This was a big decision for the future of the Library and one that affects our entire community. There have been strong feelings and spirited debate from staff on both sides of the union issue. We respect the process and thank our staff for making their voice heard.”

“I know that everybody's goal is to have a great library system that functions well and is efficient,” noted Masilamani. “We'll see how the conversations go, but I really think we're all on the same team and I hope that everyone's approaching it that way."

USW organizer Wike agreed. "The goals of the library workers are the same as management, and that's to make sure that the library serves the public to the best of their ability."

Working with the library staff has been rewarding, he added, and he had high praise for their dedication to their workplace. "They really care about the library and about the role that it serves in Pittsburgh, about how this work will make their ability to serve patrons even better,” he told LJ. “That mission-driven aspect put the fire under them. They genuinely care about their coworkers and making sure that everybody can make a living doing this important work. I think that's really what made this a success."

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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