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University Library, Northwestern University

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After furloughs, layoffs and benefit cuts during COVID-19, librarians and other library workers at Northwestern University have voted to form a union.

Some of the new union’s concerns are generally about wanting more say in working conditions, which predates the pandemic. But Michael Babinec, a metadata librarian at Northwestern, said that the university’s “fiscal response to the pandemic was certainly a catalyst” for organizing.

The union drive began in earnest in late spring 2020, when Northwestern announced that it would furlough 250 workers—about 50 of them from the library. Two library staff members also were laid off.

Northwestern said at the time that the furloughs targeted staff members “unable to substantially perform their duties remotely or who support areas with significantly reduced workloads in the wake of the pandemic.” Yet with one in five library workers furloughed, the union says members who continued to work on campus were left with at times unmanageable workloads, all without hazard pay.

“We are expected to expand services and provide greater expertise to campus while the number of staff has decreased significantly,” the union wrote in an open letter in the fall. “This past year, the library faced disproportionate furloughs and layoffs compared to other groups on campus. All of this has created an atmosphere of exhaustion and distrust that makes it difficult to be the kinds of partners we want to be and that Northwestern students, faculty, staff and community deserve.”

Even before the onset of the pandemic, the letter also says, library workers had “not seen a true cost of living raise in years, lack mobility despite advanced credentials, face performance evaluations that often do not result in equitable acknowledgement and compensation” and more.

Like some other institutions that predicted budget shortfalls in 2020 and adopted austerity measures, Northwestern actually experienced a budget surplus—some $83 million that year. It has not rehired the laid-off library workers.

Northwestern also suspended its 5 percent automatic and 5 percent matching retirement contributions for employees in 2020 but reinstated them in early 2021—without restoring lost contributions.

The Pandemic ‘Exacerbated Existing Issues’

Josh Honn, an English and digital humanities librarian who agreed with Babinec that the pandemic “exacerbated existing issues and brought up new ones,” said, “Everyone has different reasons for organizing and joining the union, but one of the core reasons was that folks just wanted a collective say in what happens in our workplace.”

Honn said that he and colleagues continue to cite “the need for transparency and equity in pay and performance evaluation, more manageable and equitable workloads, clear and well-defined paths for promotion,” and other goals for organizing.

Negotiations have not yet begun. Babinec said possible contract requests include “more opportunities for promotion and advancement, protections against being required to take on additional uncompensated work when people leave or positions are cut, and raises that reflect the real increases in cost of living.”

The National Labor Relations Board certified the new union, which is affiliated with Service Employees International Union, last month, following a majority vote in favor of unionization.

The university and the union continue to disagree over just who is included, with Northwestern arguing that some would-be members are actually managers under federal labor law. The union argues that even those library workers with direct reports are not supervisors as defined by National Labor Relations Act.

In a brief statement, Jon Yates, university spokesperson, confirmed that the NLRB certified the results of the union’s stipulated election and recognized SEIU Local 73 as the “exclusive collective-bargaining representative of a little more than 100 Northwestern University Libraries employees, including both librarian and non-librarian staff.”

The union counts 43 librarians, who have faculty status at Northwestern, and more than 80 other exempt and nonexempt staff members. While the Northwestern unit includes only library workers, librarians are often included in faculty unions elsewhere, at least at public institutions, where collective bargaining rights are governed by state law.

Honn said “one of the best parts of this victory has been that we decided we—staff and faculty—are all library workers and wish to be united in our care for ourselves, each other, the library and our campus community.”

Faculty members at Northwestern, including the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, have expressed support for the librarians’ right to form a union.

‘These Are Incredibly Hard Times’

A 2020 study from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at the City University of New York’s Hunter College found that more than a dozen new higher education bargaining units formed between 2013 and 2019 included librarians. William Herbert, executive director of the center, noted that student library workers at the University of Chicago formed a union in 2018, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see future library unionization efforts, particularly by nonfaculty librarians and library workers at other private institutions.

Honn said, “I think these are incredibly hard times for libraries and library workers everywhere. From public libraries being taken over by corporate and conservative boards bent on destroying a massively important public good to universities manufacturing austerity despite record returns on their endowments, libraries are definitely under attack."

Northwestern’s libraries certainly aren’t alone in facing budget or personnel cuts. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, has said it will address ongoing financial challenges, in part, by cutting $5 million from the university libraries over two years. Most of this will be achieved by cutting holdings and canceling subscriptions to journals, packages and databases, which make up three-quarters of collections expenditures.

“These cuts take place following decades of high cost and high inflation rates for scholarly publications,” Chapel Hill said in an announcement. “The library will make decisions based on information about materials and their use.”

Texas A&M University also has plans to restructure its university libraries into a “service unit to efficiently and effectively provide top quality service to the campus community.”

This means that the libraries “will no longer serve as a tenure home for faculty,” according to an announcement by President M. Katherine Banks. “Tenured and tenure-track faculty currently in University Libraries will be accommodated in a new departmental home with a full-time appointment in the University Libraries service unit.”

Texas A&M did not provide additional details about the plan or make a librarian available for an interview.

Librarians at public institutions in North Carolina and Texas aren’t entitled to collective bargaining under state labor laws.

Honn, at Northwestern, said he’s “encouraged” by organizing where it is happening. “We are not the first library union, and we certainly won’t be the last.”

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