Joining a Union

Working within a union can be a very effective strategy to achieve pay equity and better salaries. The Bureau of National Affairs notes that union librarians made an average of 44 percent more than nonunion librarians in 2005. The 2006 ALA-APA Salary Survey: Non-MLS – Public and Academic showed similar results. Union library assistants made 41 percent more than non-union assistants. Thirty-one percent of librarians and 15 percent of library technicians were covered by a collective bargaining agreement; 27 percent of librarians and 11 percent of support staff were union members. And in addition to improving salaries, union contracts can create or protect transfer rights, encourage promotion from within, safeguard job security, secure seniority rights and improve other conditions of work. Many new employees who have never been represented by a union may be eager to learn about their library’s union but are unsure where to begin. The following survey of union leadership and resources will hopefully provide a starting point for union involvement in a new workplace.

Union Leadership

Many national and local unions serve the needs of library workers. My union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is the largest public employee and health care workers’ union in the United States. AFSCME falls under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Other library workers are members of such unions as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters. Library employees may also belong, voluntarily or by mandate, to local, teachers, state, faculty and civil service unions. Some of the unions have specific sections for library workers. Below is an outline of union leadership positions in my union, AFSCME.

The AFSCME Local 1526 at the Boston Public Library (BPL) has officers which are elected to represent different groups within the local. In addition to the President, VP, Treasurer, Secretary and Chief Steward, a person is elected to be the representative of the Civil Service workers, the Mechanical Services workers and the Library Assistants. Please note that the BPL Local 1526 does not represent the professional librarians.

In addition to officers, unions usually have stewards. A union steward is an employee who is elected or appointed to serve as liaison between fellow employees and the union leaders. Though a steward’s responsibilities vary by union, most stewards monitor and enforce the provisions of the labor contract; aid workers in the grievance process; and communicate union policies and directives to employees. Each unionized workplace is usually served by a Chief Steward and a compliment of Stewards. Although stewards are trained to help all members, large locals sometimes assign the stewards to different areas. My AFSCME Local assigns stewards to members at the main library departments as well as to the different branches.

Resources for Union Involvement

There are many ways a new employee can learn about a local union chapter. First, most unions will initiate contact with a new worker to provide information about the chapter. Some union contracts allocate time to meet with new employees to introduce them to the local. Other unions have the stewards and/or officers assigned to different employee groups and they will stop by and introduce themselves to the new employee and give them an information packet. Even if the union does not initiate contact the new employee, most unions also have a bulletin board in a staff area where union notices are posted and the list of officers with contact information. If no information is posted, an employee may ask the HR Office for the contact information of the union officers.

Please note that although the employee’s position might be within a union bargaining unit, the employee is not always automatically a member of the union. A person needs to sign a union membership card in order to become a member.

Resources for New Union Members

Once an employee/member has decided to join the union, s/he should attend training sessions to learn about the organizational structure of the union and to meet the officers and stewards. AFSCME’s Education Department schedules training sessions to coincide with the election/appointment of new officers and stewards. Training sessions aren’t only for new union members. In my area, the Boston Labor Guild offers weekly classes open to all union members and AFSCME will pay the tuition of any AFSCME member who wishes to attend. Unions also provide advanced training programs. AFSCME Council 93, which includes locals unions in much of New England, offers a week-long advanced training program for union officers, and although any officer/member can apply for the program, competition for acceptance is tough. AFSCME also provides accommodations and compensation for the employees’ pay.

AFSCME International also offers a number of online publications that can be helpful to new members. Of particular interest is a guide to participating in a union meeting.

By meeting union leadership and reviewing available resources on membership, a new employee will be able to decide for him/herself if union membership is right for them.