A dispatch from the front lines of the labor movement. The community rallies; the board doesn’t budge.
There is a crowd outside of the Library Board meeting. This is the most people I’ve ever seen at one of these meetings. Democratic Socialists of America and local librarians are among the groups represented. I first speak with the DSA head who assures me I’m in the right place, “as long as you’re on the right side,” someone barks while I spit out my credentials.
I heard about this meeting on Instagram. The local DSA posted a call for support. Their goal was to fill the audience with speakers, every person having an opportunity to go to the podium and voice support for the Library Workers Union.* I want to see what’s going on. It’s exhausting to see flashpoints online only; it feels isolating.
Tonight, the board will be deciding whether to voluntarily recognize the LWU. Workers are organizing the Union with assistance from another local and the DSA. Besides the people involved in the organization drive we have folks from the United Auto Workers, The International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, teachers, and families in support. We want the board to voluntarily recognize the union. If the board votes to voluntarily recognize the union, then it’s done: they’ve got voluntary recognition. However, if the board votes to put the Union’s status to election, then it’ll be up to the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election and lawyers to negotiate any points of contention. Seventeen of the twenty-two library workers have joined LWU, citing pay equity, racial equity, and gender equity as motivations to organize.
“You can speak too,” The DSA head says, and I stammer. I haven’t done any reporting since I was in high school. But she’s friendly, and they all are. I’m directed to the librarians in question, who are with other, actual, reporters. It’s hard to get a word in, and I don’t know what I’d say anyway. Eventually I get my chance to chat with one of the librarians, and exchange contact information. A political staffer is next in line and tells the librarians that their politician is on their side.
The meeting is called quicker than I expected: procedure to podium. The first speaker is a woman in a brown coat. She’s a teacher like many of the people here, and a union steward too. She says that unions are the safeguard of public ideals: democracy, solidarity, and equality. I agree with her, but I think about how that sentiment is controversial. The woman says as much herself, and there is no doubt that she is referencing congress. So-called democratic political apparatuses have kept the most important democratic tool of direct action away from us. More Americans would vote for their boss than the president.
A theme begins to develop. I am amazed by how unanimous this is. I was silently waiting for some detractor to speak, but there aren’t any. Everyone here wants this to happen. Which begs the question: If the opponents really cared, wouldn’t they also be here? A man says that “libraries are the backbone of a democratic society,” and it is hard to disagree with him. It doesn’t get any more democratic than this because as far as I can tell, this is the community.
One of the speakers is carrying his son with him. The man tells the library board that they shouldn’t drag this election out and that it needs to be settled. If not now, when? There are people worried that the next library board won’t be as receptive to the formation of a Union. What’s more, Gen Z is less likely to stay in a job that doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. And how much time do we really have to fight for labor before the bosses strike back? It’s impossible not to share this man’s sense of urgency.
The woman sitting next to me goes up next and says something beautiful about how “our state is the cradle of labor.” This state is militant among the gutted and sold-out factories. Midwestern labor creaks through the rust of ruinous capital; it is a titan. Detroit, to Chicago, to Buffalo, labor holdouts forge the path forward. It’s a midwestern pride, there, in the eyes of these comrades speaking in this library this warm winter Thursday.
The meeting runs contrary to my romantic revolutionary images. On the one hand, I expect a great defensive encirclement around our revolutionary Catalonia with streamers, fists and fire. Here are puffy coats, attentive silence, and awkward coughing. Too often, when I think of “city board meetings” I expect the pastiche of Parks and Rec–odd folks with even odder complaints, and maybe a Karen or two. Not warmth, not solidarity, not the throat-hold waiting for the motion to move.
The theme continues. Democracy is unity, is labor, and is international. Here, in front of these people I see every type of person imaginable. This is the unity of purpose; this is the unity of respect. The people at this board meeting in our little metal seats are here to fight for each other.
It seems that everything here is contradictory and nothing is romantic. Everyone in the room wants the Union to exist, except the board. Everyone is speaking very passionately but nothing is exciting. The democratic consensus among those affected, namely the workers, is being ignored for a single anonymous letter written against the Union.”We believe everyone’s voice should be heard,” the Board says, ignoring the past forty minutes. The board goes on, citing “forty-one supporters of the union via telephone and email” and then “twenty-eight supporters via patron interactions.” And then that anonymous note. One voice to override all of the voices of support. The motion is read and the lawyers will be mediating this.
“A waste of taxpayer money,” someone says. The motion to voluntarily recognize the union is unanimously struck down by the board. I do not know how long this process will take, and I do not know the law firm’s track record; all I know is that the workers should get what they want. That is the foundational assumption behind all organizing. The employees deserve everything. Why is that to be argued by a group of people who have no stake in this?
It feels dishonest, as if everyone’s voice is only valid insofar as it corroborates the board’s desires. The clear majority wants recognition. To me all of this procedure exists to justify itself. The rumor is that the board’s decision was already decided in a closed meeting weeks prior. I want everyone to stand up and march, or strike. We have everything we need. The workers have democratic consensus, and the community is in support, so why shouldn’t it go the way we wanted? It makes me critical of how effective appealing to a boss’ sense of fairness is. The board is intent on wielding its power. Why aren’t we?
I’m thinking about power now. There is power in the crowd– the people here are the constituents that elected this board that’s now going against their wishes. What they’ve achieved is solidarity, which is always good. The workers seem optimistic that they’re going to win out in the end, and I agree with them. It is ultimately better to have some movement than nothing, and I think that in the end it was good to reach out to the community like this. Even if it was only a moral victory. Within the workplace the staff supported each other. From a podcast I’ve learned that there is solidarity within the workplace, but I like to think of the next step. Now that there is community support and workplace solidarity they’ve proven that they have the popular cause. The next step I think is to wield that cause in a way to achieve their demands. I hope that the workers have realized that they have everything they need to take matters into their own hands, and only time will tell how they use this in their struggle. Procedure can only get one so far, and in many cases you can always go farther.
Let me put it this way. During a particularly hot week in July my shift substituted the receiving team. We were stuffed in the back of the store and we spent hours unloading heavy material from the back of sweltering trucks. We had a Union, but what were we supposed to do? Complain? Push our issue up the line? That would take too much time, and before the complaint could be acted on we’d be assigned back to our usual task. We went over the problem by ourselves, and while we were deliberating we miraculously all came down with the same stomach flu. We never unloaded a truck again.
The lesson here is that solidarity and community are tools. We have to figure out how to use them. The meeting showed the way forward and it’s up to us to walk it.
Regardless, I am hopeful that the Union will win out in the end. We exit the meeting and are in the hall, the organizers pledge to continue the fight. Our cheers drown out the rest of the board meeting.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of local workers and their attempts to organize.
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