The coronavirus pandemic served as a wakeup call for workers across industries in the United States, causing many to reevaluate their relationship to their job, as well as the expectations they might have of their employer.
“When you have some time to step away and look at the big picture, you have time to think about ways things could be different,” said Moth Meuser, teen librarian at Pickerington Public Library. “And then when you think of the ways things can be different, you start to wonder, why is that something we’re not doing? Why is that something that’s out of reach? … Sometimes it was just easy to feel a little voiceless.”
According to Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) president Melissa Cropper, the ongoing pandemic has had a pronounced impact on the union movement. Prior to COVID-19, she said she couldn’t recall the last time the group helped organize a new local union chapter. But in the time since the coronavirus surfaced, the group has already advised seven locals who have moved on to vote in favor of a union, with more in the pipeline.
“I think the pandemic had a huge impact to where people started to have a different perspective on what they wanted their lives to look like and what kind of voice they wanted to have in the workplace,” Cropper said. “I think a lot of people either read about unions, or knew people in unions, and heard about what they were doing to help keep people safe and to provide accommodation. … I think these issues were arising where employees wanted to have more of a say in what was happening.”
The union push in Pickerington started in earnest when Meuser reached out to OFT in November to request information on organizing a union. Months of internal conversations among library employees followed, with the workers approaching the library board of trustees on Aug. 10, asking them to voluntarily recognize the union. In making the request, workers also presented management and the State Employee Relations Board (SERB) with signed cards representing union support from roughly 73 percent of staff members in the Pickerington Public Library system.
Despite worker hopes to the contrary, the library board of trustees declined to voluntarily recognize the union, and the unionization drive will now proceed to a mail-in vote – a process likely to take months. If successful, Pickerington would become the third library system in Ohio to unionize via OFT, following in the footsteps of Worthington and Grandview Heights.
“I think it gets more exciting as you get further down the process,” said Meuser, who hoped the Pickerington workers could unionize and successfully negotiate benefits such as health benefits for part-time employees and paid family leave. “It becomes more real, and you realize you’re organizing for something that’s tangible, that’s right in front of you. It’s like, oh, we can actually make a difference. We can improve our workplace for everybody and make it more democratic.”
In choosing not to voluntarily recognize the union, Pickerington Public Library director Tony Howard released a memo to employees in which he downplayed potential benefits of a worker-led union while highlighting the potential costs to employees.
“The Library’s Board of Trustees and Library Administrators respect the rights of staff to organize and are prepared to recognize the union once all staff have had a say through secret ballot,” Howard wrote in a statement in reply to a request from Matter News. Howard also wrote that the library was seeking clarification on what positions would be included in the bargaining unit, at which point the process would move to a secret ballot vote administered by SERB.
The current union push within local libraries is unfolding at the same time intellectual freedom has come under attack from right-wing groups, with book bannings continuing to extend deeper into public library systems across the country. In March, the American Library Association released data documenting 1,269 demands to censor library books – the highest number of attempted book bans recorded in the two decades for which the ALA has collected data.
“It’s been a little scary to see all of that, to be honest, but it’s made me more defiant in my protection of intellectual freedom and the library,” said Worthington youth librarian Tara Shiman. “I’ve always been a big believer that good libraries have a book that offends everybody, and I’m very fortunate to be in a library system where my director and board feel the same way. … But, at the end of the day, we’re people, and these attacks affect us psychologically, mentally, physically and emotionally. And I think that ties in beautifully with labor unions, because when these things happen, we need to come together as the union and library management to say, ‘We believe in intellectual freedom, and we also take care of our workers as well.’”
Early in the union push, Meuser was buoyed by the efforts previously undertaken by Worthington Libraries, whose workers announced a public intent to organize in June 2021 and ratified their first contract in April. In addition to securing library employees up to six weeks of parental leave and establishing benefits for part-time workers, Shiman said the contract has given workers a larger voice in library operations and significantly improved relations with management.
“Since forming the union, we’ve had a better relationship with our admin, a better relationship with our board. … And that’s how you can better come together and articulate policies that better serve the library,” Shiman said.
“I don’t think anybody I’ve talked to in this entire process has been thinking, ‘Oh, yes, I’m going to stick it to management,’” Meuser said, and laughed. “They want communication to be open, and they want us to be on the same page. … The staff want to know what’s going on so they can feel that investment in the workplace and not feel like things are just happening to them or to the library, but that we’re a part of things as it moves forward.”