Union wave is picking up at Chicago, suburban libraries, cultural institutions

The Chicago Public Library and other systems have long had unions, but now the organizing is happening against a backdrop of unprecedented pressure on workers.

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The Newberry Library at 60 W Walton St.

The Newberry Library at 60 W. Walton St.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

For more than a century, the Newberry Library’s grand Romanesque building has loomed over a city block in downtown Chicago.

Established in 1887, the Newberry is home to books, maps, music and other materials spanning six centuries. Its history and majestic architecture evokes a sense of reverence. But its staff can’t survive on cultural cachet alone.

“There’s a lot that’s special about the Newberry,” said Sophia Croll, program manager at the library. Yet the institution has “chewed through a lot of staff,” largely due to low pay, she said. “You couldn’t afford to live in this city and work here.”

In fall 2022, more than 60 Newberry employees formed a labor union with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Staff members including librarians, conservators, library assistants and program coordinators won their first union contract in November 2023.

They’re part of a wave of museums and cultural institution workers forming unions in Chicago and across the country.

In addition to the Newberry’s staff, library workers in the suburbs also have unionized. Since 2020, library employees in the Niles-Maine district, Oak Lawn, St. Charles and Waukegan have organized. In contrast, none had joined AFSCME in 2019.

AFSCME Council 31, which represents workers in Illinois, added more than 2,200 members from the state’s cultural institutions since 2021, according to spokesperson Anders Lindall.

Newberry’s four-year contract includes a 15% pay increase, freezing employees’ health care costs and doubled parental leave. Of the library’s approximately 100 employees, about two-thirds were eligible to unionize.

Employees also won a grievance procedure where they can voice workplace concerns. “No longer can management make unilateral changes without employee input,” said a statement from Newberry Workers United/AFSCME.

Newberry Library employees stand outside the library. From left to right, Cheryl Wegner, Patrick Kepley, Ernestina Sáenz, Lili Pangborn, Gabriel Hamer, Sophia Croll and Elynnor Sandefer.

Newberry Library employees stand outside the library. From left to right, Cheryl Wegner, Patrick Kepley, Ernestina Sáenz, Lili Pangborn, Gabriel Hamer, Sophia Croll and Elynnor Sandefer.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Museums and libraries unionizing

Employees at the Art Institute of Chicago and School of the Art Institute of Chicago helped spark the wave of cultural institutions organizing when they formed a union in January 2022. More than 500 employees ratified their first union contract last year.

“I know it would be safer for my career to simply keep my head down and ignore the inequity around me, but when I think about how the institution treats its staff, how they treat my colleagues, I can’t just stare at the ground,” David Norris, academic advisor at School of the Art Institute, said in a statement.

Organizing at the Art Institute inspired others, including Newberry workers who conferred with the museum’s union, said Croll, of Newberry.

Other Chicago museums have also organized since 2022, including the Field Museum; the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum; Museum of Science and Industry; and this February, the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Across the U.S., museums such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York City; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and more have formed unions since 2019.

When the pandemic hit and cultural workers started organizing, AFSCME launched a dedicated national program called Cultural Workers United aimed at museums, libraries, zoos and other cultural institutions.

AFSCME represents 35,000 cultural workers nationwide — more than any other union. That includes 10,000 museum workers at 100 private and public cultural institutions and more than 25,000 library workers at 275 public and private libraries.

The pandemic changed mindsets

The spurt of organizing at libraries gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic when workers’ hours and pay were cut or they were asked to work without adequate safety measures. Inflation and cost of living also spiked.

At Oak Lawn Public Library, the deadly effects of COVID-19 spurred action. A security officer died in April 2020 after being sick with the virus, but management didn’t tell other staff to quarantine or get tested.

COVID-19 was a wake-up call to change mindsets.

“There was a general sense post-pandemic of advocating for what you need,” Croll said. “None of us went into this field expecting to make millions of dollars. But it should pay you enough to eat, live comfortably and give benefits.”

In 2022, workers in education, training and library occupations had the highest unionization rate for any professional occupation group at 37.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That year about 25% of U.S. librarians were union members.

Librarians who were union members were better paid and earned 37% more per week than their non-union counterparts in 2022, according to the Department for Professional Employees, a coalition of national unions.

In recent years, labor organizing has made headlines as employees at behemoth companies such as Starbucks and Amazon have mounted much-publicized campaigns to unionize. There’s also been high-profile strikes by the United Auto Workers and Hollywood writers and actors.

Although it may seem like a labor movement is sweeping the country, overall union membership has fallen dramatically since historic highs in the 1950s. In 1983, the union membership rate across the country was 20.1%, according to BLS figures. In 2023, it was at 10%.

There’s no simple answer to explain why. Public opinion about unions was at its highest point since 1965, according to a 2022 Gallup poll.

However, “employers spend a lot of money trying to stay union free. They have a lot of tools to do that,” said Robert Bruno, professor of labor relations at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

More pressure on librarians

The Chicago Public Library and other systems have long had unions. But now organizing among libraries is happening against a backdrop of unprecedented pressures on workers.

Many cities are struggling to cope with the rise of homelessness and fentanyl addiction. Workers at public libraries that serve as open spaces are being asked to take on roles as social workers without adequate support, said Lindall, of AFSCME Council 31.

“The old idea of what a library is just doesn’t apply anymore. It’s not just a brick-and-mortar place to check out a book. A library is a center of community; it does outreach; it’s online; it’s multilingual and cross-cultural,” Lindall said. “With that has come increased demands on employees, but wages, benefits and respect have not necessarily kept pace.”

Political controversy over books has also intensified across the U.S., and libraries are increasingly in the crosshairs. In 2023, the number of book titles targeted for censorship in schools and libraries reached an all-time high of 4,240 compared to 2,571 the previous year, the American Library Association (ALA) said in March.

In 2022, Illinois counted 43 attempts to restrict 69 titles. “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe was the state’s most challenged book.

Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias last year led legislation that withholds state funding from libraries that flout the ALA guidelines against removing materials “because of partisan or personal disapproval.” The law to “ban book bans” took effect in January.

Giannoulias introduced the bill after extremist groups — including far-right nationalist organization the Proud Boys — “targeted Illinois libraries, divided communities and harassed librarians,” Giannoulias, who also serves as State Librarian, said in a statement.

Sunday marks the start of National Library Week, and the ALA is encouraging people to visit their local library.

‘Save Niles Library’

At Niles-Main District Library, 45 minutes north of Chicago, workers were not explicitly harassed. But their livelihood and the library’s future were threatened when hostile board members tried to slash staff salaries by 60%.

“That would have had a devastating effect. We had to unionize. It was the only option to save our jobs,” Cate Levinson, youth services librarian, said. The employees formed a union in June 2021.

While the motivations of hostile board members were not overtly political, they “didn’t believe libraries are a good investment of tax dollars,” Levinson said. One board member objected to books in more than seven languages in a library system that serves some 59,000 people.

Community members joined library employees to oppose proposed budget cuts. In July 2021, more than 150 people rallied as part of the “Save Niles Library” campaign. Nearly 2,000 signed a petition, and some 50 citizens spoke at a public meeting in support of the library. Because of the outcry, an amendment to avoid budget cuts was approved.

Hostile board members were eventually ousted. It was a huge relief for library workers, Levinson said. And now there is the extra security and protection under their new union.

In November 2023, the union won their first contract, which outlines pay raises, a grievance procedure and, for the first time, paid parental leave.

“The unionizing process is long and difficult. It’s extra work. But protecting the people you work with is so critical. Anything can happen: an election, a new board, new administrators,” Levinson said. “The only mechanism to stop those destructive transitions is an organization that stands by staff and the work they do. Without the power of a union to support that work, it can fall apart.”

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