Newberry Library workers go public with union organizing campaign

The employees seek an affiliation with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

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Workers at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., have started a union organizing drive.

Workers at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., have started a union organizing drive.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Employees at the Newberry Library are working to form a union with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is fresh from successfully organizing staff at the Art Institute of Chicago and its school.

Newberry staff announced the organizing drive in an open letter the union circulated Monday. Spokesman Anders Lindall of AFSCME’s Council 31 said it is seeking to organize 66 workers. The bargaining unit could include conservators, librarians, library assistants, program coordinators and other staff positions.

“We have chosen to organize because we believe in the core values of The Newberry, but those values can’t exist if we don’t have a voice in the decisions that affect us and proper support from management to further the institution’s goals,” Salma Geneidy, a member of the workers’ organizing committee, said in a statement the union released. Geneidy is an administrative coordinator for the library’s Research and Education department.

The employees’ letter said they are organizing “to use our collective power to improve our workplace.” It added, “Though concerns about wages and workloads are not new, the financial uncertainties of the past few years have brought these issues to a head. Layoffs and furloughs of essential staff, stagnant wages and a lack of transparent decision-making are not sustainable.”

AFSCME is collecting signed cards from workers supporting union affiliation. A union typically asks a federal agency to schedule a secret-ballot election once it gets cards from a substantial majority of workers. Lindall declined to say how many cards have been turned in so far.

Alex Teller, spokesman for the independent research library, said, “We support our employees’ right to make their own decisions about whether or not to unionize. Although we prefer to work with our employees directly, should Newberry staff choose to join a union, we will work with them to continue to advance the values that are foundational to the Newberry’s mission.”

Teller said the library has 101 employees, none represented by a union. He said cutbacks during the pandemic forced the elimination of three jobs in January 2021.

The Newberry is at 60 W. Walton St. and has operated since 1887. It has specialized collections covering many topics, with an emphasis on the humanities and American history and culture.

AFSCME is known for its membership within government agencies, but it also includes staffs of 275 public and private libraries as well as 10,000 museum workers around the country. It represents staff at the Chicago Public Library, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and the Library of Congress.

Newberry workers said they drew inspiration from the union’s campaigns within the Art Institute. Lindall said AFSCME is advising workers in negotiating first contracts at the museum and its school. Both bargaining units became official with elections last January.

The union also is organizing adjunct faculty and lecturers at the school.

The National Labor Relations Board supervises elections to determine if employees become union members. During that process, the agency often decides disputes between the union and the employer over which workers should be in the bargaining unit.

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