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Unions and the public library

By Robert W. Schmidt,
President, Queens Borough Library Guild,
Local 1321, AFSCME

When I was asked to write an article on "The Importance of Collective Bargaining for Public Librarians," to be published in The Bookmark, no less, I had to laugh. Of course I was delighted with the offer of such a forum for a cause close to my heart, but the irony was inescapable. Memories came flooding back from the years when we were organizing our union in the teeth of bitter opposition. I remember an ALA convention in Atlantic City in the late 1960's when a small group of us from the New York City library systems rented a hospitality suite in the headquarters hotel. We distributed invitations to delegates and visitors to come and discuss unionism. The convention officials, not content with forbidding us to put our invitations in the lobby, actually called the police to come and arrest us. Against my judgment we left quietly before they came. I thought then, and I think now, that the union cause would have been advanced more quickly and effectively if we had been arrested with all due publicity.

In those days, only 15 years ago, we could expect to read articles in professional publications on the dangers of unions for librarians, or the threat of unionism, but favorable comments were pretty much confined to the letters-to-the-editor sections. That is all In the past now. The union is part of the ordinary structure of many libraries and there are thousands of librarians who have never known what it was to work without a union. There are many more, however, who remember very well. Ours is one of the few milieus in which it is possible for 46 year-olds to remember the "dark ages." Before getting into the "meat" of the subject, I think we should clarify our terms. "Collective bargaining" properly describes a method or process of negotiating, contracts. While it is certainly one of the most important activities undertaken by unions, it is far from synonymous with unionism, so I shall broaden the scope and talk about the importance of unions to public librarians.

There are different kinds of unions in American libraries. Some are strictly professional and others strictly nonprofessional in membership. There are also "company unions" or staff associations which are not really unions at all but sometimes try to play that role. My own experience has been with the Queens Borough Library Guild, Local 1321, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and we are an "industrial union" as distinct from a "trade union." That is to say, the one Local represents all titles in the library. We have professional, clerical, and blue-collar staff all happily (more or less) enrolled together. It is from this background that I draw my material.


When I began working for Queens Borough Public Library in 1956 we, like most other libraries, had a staff association. We elected officers, had meetings, passed resolutions, and made collective suggestions to management. There was an interchange of ideas that was sometimes fruitful and management looked upon us with a patronizing tolerance. There came a fateful moment when the Staff Association drew up a series of questions for the director that were mildly critical of some Library policies. Some of them even went so far as to question

“ ... the union belonged to the members who had built it ... “

the director's judgment in certain matters. The response was immediate and pointed. We were told that if this sort of thing was repeated, the Library would seriously question the need to continue the Association. We existed by management's permission and would be continued at management's pleasure. It was eminently clear that, should we ever again exceed our servility quotient, we would become one with yesterday's dreams. I cite this anecdote to point up the unique quality of a real union that distinguishes it from a company union. Our union, like most, was born in struggle. We were resisted at every level of management. The director issued releases warning the staff of the perils of unionism; middle-management personnel were sent to the branches to confiscate union publicity. We were seen as the adversary, come to disrupt and destroy the library family, to pit colleague against colleague.

When we at last prevailed and the staff voted for union, there was no question of owing anything to management, no doubt in anybody's mind that the union belonged to the members who had built it and to nobody else. That is the first, last, and most important fact of unionism; all of its unique advantages derive from that fact. So long as the members do not abdicate their right to their union, so long as they exercise their franchise to elect responsible officers, so long as they make their voices heard in meetings, it will continue to belong to them and to express their will.


Let us examine some of the advantages that come with unionization. Some of them are pretty well known. Collective bargaining, conducted by a strong union, will certainly bring higher wages than one could hope to get by any other means. That is a truism acknowledged by even the most reactionary segments of the media. The conservative press never tires of complaining of the greedy unions with their extortionate wage demands. That is a litany that many recite, though never about their own wages. If we really believed that a union could get us extortionate wages, who would not be a member? It is true, nonetheless, that you will do a good deal better with collective bargaining than without.

"Fringe benefits" differ in different places, but those offered by our Union are fairly typical, if rather more comprehensive than in smaller jurisdictions. Some benefits are administered directly by the Union with funds provided by the City pursuant to collective bargaining agreements. These include such things as dental insurance up to $1,000 per year, a drug plan under which one pays only 75 cents for any prescription, a disability plan that offers $125 per week for 28 weeks when sick leave is exhausted, death and dismemberment insurance, free eye glasses, and legal aid by a full-time staff of lawyers for the most commonly needed legal services.

The Union's Education Division offers to both workers and retirees, self-improvement and job-related courses including coaching for civil service exams. Many of these are applicable for college credits and there is a college tuition refund program as well.

The Personal Services Unit offers professional counseling and referrals on individual and family problems such as alcoholism, drugs, wayward children, and psychiatric problems. it offers individual and group counseling to prepare members for retirement and helps those whose mental or physical condition may limit their ability to help themselves when they need disability benefits but cannot find their way through the thicket of red tape raised by officialdom. All these things are handled confidentially, and many of our members have been helped through very tough spots.

"Over and above these are the health insurance and pension plans...”

These are some of the "fringes" that a large union can offer directly. Over and above these are the health insurance and pension plans which are usually not administered by the unions, but in which unions play a major role. The amount paid into medical plans is usually negotiable and subject to improvement through collective bargaining. Until the recent fiscal crisis in New York the pension plans were also negotiable. From 1937-1969, Queens Borough employees lived with the State Retirement Plan's cheapest option, one-one hundred and twentieth of one's final salary multiplied by the years worked. In 1969, shortly after we organized, the Union called upon the City to negotiate an improvement, and in two days of bargaining the City agreed to pay the cost of the one-sixtieth plan, effectively doubling the value of every member's pension.


All of the above are "cost items." That is, they are products of bargaining between the Union and the funding authority, in our case the City of New York, as part of the "money package." Besides these there is the whole spectrum of working conditions which are embodied in what is usually called the "working conditions contract." This is negotiated with the Library and the process Is often much more complex and protracted than that for the cost items. Here we get to the every-day operation of the individual library. Our current Working Conditions Contract fills 54 typed sheets and an additional 10 pages of addenda. In these pages are included all the rules governing the payment of overtime, the use of annual leave and sick leave, operation of the library in adverse weather conditions, transfers between work locations, bereavement leave, and countless other matters which impact directly upon the employees. An of these are subjects which are defined in law as "mandatory subjects of collective bargaining." That means that once there is a union, management must negotiate on all these matters. It cannot impose its own rules with regard to them.

Firmly implanted in the middle of this contract is the grievance procedure, the most important single item of all. Grievance is the method by which disputes are resolved. I cannot do better than to quote the definition of a grievance from our own contract:

1. A dispute concerning the inequitable application or interpretation of the terms of this collective bargaining agreement.

2. A claimed violation, misinterpretation or misapplication of the rides, regulations, policies or orders of the ... Library.

3. Claimed wrongful disciplinary action against an employee.

4. Claimed assignment of an employee to duties substantially different from those stated in the job description.

To describe the actual processing of a grievance, going through three levels of management with differing rights of union representation at each level, would needlessly burden the reader. What is important to note is that the member has a right to "grieve" not only a violation of the contract, but the Library's misuse of its own rides and policies as well. This does not preclude the management's changing such rules and policies as are not mandatory subjects of collective bargaining from time to time, but it does preclude their applying them inequitably. Should the Library and the grievant fail to resolve the problem "in house," the Union may submit the issue to binding arbitration. The cost is borne equally by the Library and the Union, and the decision of the arbitrator is binding on both parties and enforceable in law.

In this grievance procedure, culminating in binding arbitration, we have the embodiment of due process of law in the work place. Here we are dealing with an issue of such fundamental importance as cannot be overstated. Libraries and librarians have stood at the forefront in many human rights and civil liberties disputes. The voice of our profession has been loud and clear on the side of individual rights. I am sure we will never hear a voice from our ranks calling for the repeal of the Fifth Amendment clause guaranteeing that we may not be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law." And yet an employer in a non-union business retains that power which is denied to the State, at least as regards property. The power to suspend and discharge an employee, to actually deprive one of a livelihood, is a power to impose a heavier penalty than a court of law could do for anything less than a major felony. Only a union, through its grievance procedure, can interpose due process in the form of binding arbitration between a worker and the unbridled exercise of the employer's power, however whimsically applied.

All of the foregoing, written as it is from the viewpoint of a union president, may be suspect as painting a picture too rosy to be credited. To be sure, I have described accomplishments of a big union in a big city. Our parent union speaks with the voice of 100,000 in New York City alone and many of its benefits would not be attainable in a smaller jurisdiction. Let us try then to focus on the essentials, those things which public librarians everywhere can hope to gain by unionization. In the course of negotiating contracts for public library employees over the past 14 years I have found some issues to be of paramount importance to our members and others of lesser importance. While wages are always the most important single issue, the greatest heat is generated in negotiations for improvements in working conditions.


The items which have dominated our bargaining and which are seen by our members as essential are: job security, transfers (a major problem in Queens Borough because of its large area and poor transportation), operation of the Library In extreme conditions of heat or cold, out-of-title work, equitable promotion policies, and vacation scheduling. Every library will have its own particular needs, but most of us share all or some of these.

Whatever the special needs of any library, the sine qua non of all contracts must be a grievance procedure with provision for union representation and binding arbitration. It will need to go beyond contract enforcement. It must also check the unfair or inequitable application of management's own rules. Beyond this, any new union, drawing up its first set of contract demands should study contracts of other library unions and poll its own membership for suggested inclusions. With the demands in hand, collective bargaining can begin.


Members have asked me how agreements are reached in collective bargaining when both parties are determined not to yield. It is a question that does not lend itself to simple answers, but we may begin by observing that both sides know a contract must be the eventual product of their endeavors. Many of the demands of both sides are not particularly controversial and will be resolved easily. Some will be seen to be relatively unimportant and will be withdrawn in a mutual give-and-take. But finally the crunch comes when certain demands remain on the table which one side finds unacceptable and the other believes essential. From this point forward the negotiations become a contest of strength.

"The second source of a union's strength. is political power...”

Where then does a union derive its strength? Why should management yield? The answer is two-fold; a union's strength derives first from the unity of its members and, second, from its political power. Management must know that the union spokespersons really represent the will of the employees. Sometimes that unity will be expressed in membership polls, sometimes in public demonstrations, sometimes simply by the numbers who vote in the union elections and the percentage of votes polled by the elected officers, and sometimes it is expressed in the form of a strike.

Now I have said the fateful word. Strike is the one word that many otherwise sensible persons think of when they think of unions. Of course, the reality is that a strike for most unions is a desperate last resort, to be used only when all else has failed. In a sense a strike is an admission of failure at the bargaining table. It is true that the possibility of a strike is implicit in any contest of strength between union and management, but most unions are reluctant to use the strike weapon, first, because of the economic impact it has on its own members, and, second, because of the loss of members' confidence if it fails in its objectives. A "busted strike" is little short of a disaster for a union. In New York State, of course, the Taylor Law imposes draconian penalties on strikers and their unions in public employment. It has not stopped strikes, but it has greatly embittered them and probably lengthened them as well. When a striker knows s/he will be doubly penalized, s/he will be the more determined to stay out until s/he has won.

Our local has never struck in the 14 years of its existence. Twice the membership has authorized a strike, but in both cases management retreated and there was none. The media-fostered image of union bosses "calling" strikes bears little relation to reality. All a union leader can do is to recommend a strike; only the membership can authorize it by their votes.

The second source of a union's strength is political power. Unions endorse candidates for office who support labor and social issues that favor the interests of their members. While such an endorsement is in no sense binding on individual members, it does have a very real impact at the polls. It also means volunteer help in the campaign: canvassing, leafleting, telephoning, and making contributions. This political "clout" underlies all union bargaining power in the public sector.

It is an endless source of amazement to me that members still come forward from time to time 'to say they do not think unions should meddle in politics. Every appropriation of public monies for libraries and the funding of every public employee pension plan is a political decision. The very existence of public libraries is dependent on political decisions at some level. Every elected official depends on voluntary help and contributions for his/her campaign, and most are anxious to repay supporters with compatible legislation if elected. That is how the system works.' It's called "the American way," and it probably is as good as any other. Public employees should ask themselves if they believe their interests and those of their profession are better tended by politicians who owe allegiance to General Motors, I.T.&T., Consolidated Edison, and other corporate giants, or by those who owe allegiance to their own union.

Of course, every citizen should be politically active in some way, but a public employee has a special stake in his or her own ability to influence the political process. When we speak of union political power it takes us far beyond the bargaining table into the realm of social legislation, labor laws, and, in our own field, LSCA, State aid to libraries, and other library-related legislation at Federal, State, and municipal levels. Nothing can so magnify one single voice as to have it channeled through the political action committee of a union.

What, then, can we conclude about the importance of unions for public librarians? A union can certainly put money in your pocket in the form of better salaries, overtime pay, health insurance, pensions, or in some combination of these. But perhaps more importantly, the union guarantees rights which simply do not exist without it. With no contract one has no rights as an employee. It is as simple as that. An employer may be very generous, understanding, and fair, but the hand that giveth may also take away, and when this paragon moves on to greater rewards, who will take his or her place? What one has as a gift from on high is not truly yours, as many have discovered when an old boss was replaced by a new one.

The day you elect a union as your bargaining agent, you are endowed with the first essential right the right to bargain collectively. With that fundamental right in hand you can bring the strength of your union to bear on acquiring such other rights as the collective voice of your membership chooses. When, at last, the negotiations are complete and you have a contract, the members will have their rights as employees before them in black and white. Every provision set forth in the contract is of the members making and is theirs to keep. Without a contract you may be assigned any work your employer sees fit. You may be transferred, suspended, disciplined, laid-off or discharged at the employer's whim. You may see new favorites promoted over your head and you have no recourse. Only when your rights are embodied in a contract and enforced by binding arbitration do they become rights in the full sense of the word. A job without rights is a job without dignity; a job without dignity is not a profession.