ASSOCIATES (vol. 1, no. 3, March 1995) -

Table of Contents

                          Paulette Feld
                          Technician 2
                     Management Information
                 Libraries & Learning Resources
                 University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Many of you who aren't members of a union, or represented by a
union in your position, may wonder how someone can be both a union
leader and a support staff activist.  What do these two issues have
in common after all, other than having to do with our jobs?  Often,
the perception is that it isn't exactly "cool" to be a union
member, much less a union activist.  After all, it consists of a
bunch of chain-smoking,  heavy-drinking men (OK, and maybe a few
tough women) who probably have never even been in a library, much
less opened a book, for decades.  In these times of teamwork and
trying to give quality service, where does an organization that
stresses playing by a very rigid set of rules (the contract), that
often makes an issue of pointing out failures (grievances), and
resorts to the withholding of labor (job actions such as strikes)
fit in?
Support Staff activists, as promoters of recognition and respect
for support staff, try to promote a positive relationship with our
supervisors and coworkers without regard to whether they might be
a member of our group or not.  On the other hand, unions believe
that supervisors and management are the "bad guys" and their
members should always be trying to undermine them.  Plus, if
someone doesn't belong to the union, well then, we just don't talk
to them.  Pretty accurate, right?
Well....not exactly.  Unions aren't just a bunch of men sitting in
smoke-filled rooms hammering out a contract by using threats and
making "deals".  Unions are men AND women who have positions in a
wide range of careers, including responsibility as Support Staff
and degreed Librarians.
Those involved in unions respect the history of the labor movement
and the strides it made during the twentieth century to create
safe, healthy, fair workplaces for all of us.  Union activists also
realize that they must continue to be a vital part of workers lives
and be flexible enough to adjust to constant change.  So, the
perceptions and attitudes that many people have of unions and union
activists isn't the way it actually is in the 1990's.  In order to
point out what unions are really like, let's look at the
similarities between union concerns and the concerns of Library
Support Staff.
As support staff activists, we believe that our positions are an
important part of our library, and that we should be given credit
for our knowledge and work.  We ask for compensation in the form of
pay and fringe benefits which reflects the skill and dedication
that we have for our positions.  We also ask for and seek out ways
to be allowed to take part in the decision-making process in our
libraries.  Another issue involves having the opportunity to expand
our growth as valuable employees through workshops and conferences.
In essence, we're standing up for ourselves and not letting
someone else run the whole show.  Unions work for the same
thing...encouraging our employers to see us as more than the
"hourly" employees.  Many union contracts include language that
makes it mandatory for organizations to include union employees on
committees and in any group that discusses reorganization or
"quality management".  A union contract may also include
provisions that make it possible for us to attend a certain number
of conferences each year, and language establishing mandatory
support of and reimbursement for continuing education if it is
related to your position.
Additionally, Support Staff often express concern about health
problems caused by our jobs.  These are issues that unions are
concerned about too.  Most unions have Health and Safety committees
to discuss day-to-day concerns with members of management, with the
intent of resolving the problems together.  On other levels, there
are also Health and Safety committees that work at improving
legislation aimed at the protection of employees.
Many of these concerns and their resolutions are expressed in
contract provisions for many unions.  How do these contracts come
about?  It doesn't necessarily work the way we envision the process
from the old days, where the two sides sat at opposing tables,
screaming, yelling and bullying each other into submission over
their demands.  The employer's threats of "take-aways" in wages or
benefits and the union countering with threats of job action if
"we don't get everything we want"  have been replaced with more
issue-oriented bargaining  practices.  Union members submit issues
(formerly known as demands), and the teams (both the employer and
union members) look through the issues and divide them into
categories based on broad topics.  Smaller teams are assembled
consisting of union and employer representatives, and the issues
are discussed in an effort to share concerns and information.
Solutions resulting from these discussions will perhaps become
contract language that will solve the problems.  Of course,
compensation levels are an issue that is discussed during contract
negotiations.  Unions have the ability to ask the employer to
reexamine the pay levels of certain groups of employees to
investigate whether the rate of pay is appropriate to the skill
level necessary.
An aspect of the contract that often comes into play when problems
arise for a union member is the grievance procedure.  This gives
members the opportunity to resolve problems without worrying that
they will lose their jobs if they speak out.  Grievances can be
approached in a positive manner and also be a way to open up
communication, rather than as a tactic of "punishment".  With
the assistance of a steward, the employee is able to discuss issues
as an equal, not as a subordinate to their supervisor.  No matter
what the issue is, an employee has the opportunity, if necessary,
take it to higher authorities.  Chances are most support staff
activists would value the opportunity to discuss problems or
disagreements on a truly equal basis with their supervisors!
Politics within our workplace, as well as politics on the local,
state and national levels, have always been part of the labor
movement.  It is essential that unions be able to discuss important
issues with legislators.  Likewise, on a local level it is
important to understand and take part in the politics within our
institutions.  With the support of contract language, it is
possible to sit on committees with the mayor of a city, members of
the library board, the chancellor of a university or a library
director.  This is an excellent way to learn what is happening
first-hand and work out strategies to deal with issues.  It is also
a way to make yourself visible, have your message heard, earn
respect and educate people who may have no clue what library
support staff do.
On a wider scope, unions have always paid close attention to
political change.  It is interesting that it has become necessary
for library associations (of which many of us are members) to pay
attention to these changes.  More and more, the things that are
important to libraries are under attack, coming right down to the
funding that keeps our facilities open.  It's very interesting that
you can discuss issues at a union meeting one day, and several days
later at a library association meeting, the same issues are
discussed with the same viewpoints expressed.  No matter the
forum, we need to protect our positions and our places of work.
Just as union members lobbied their representatives in the past,
library workers are now lobbying in the same manner.
So, there are advantages to getting involved with your union if you
are a library support staff activist, or at least pay attention to
union activities.  When you're planning a conference, look into the
possibility of using the expertise of union representatives to
share their knowledge of employment law, health and safety, and
organizing.  It's really amazing how much information unions
collect on these issues.  Some unions will often offer this
expertise at little or no cost to your group.
Yes, sometimes unions are still forced to resort to some of the
things mentioned in the beginning of this article to get their
point across, such as job actions and strikes.  However, keep in
mind that these things are done only as a last resort and the issue
may not only be pay raises.  Often on the bargaining table are the
same issues we as library support staff discuss -- concepts such as
respect and recognition for the work we do.  Stop and take the time
to find out what all the issues behind the action are.  Talk to
members of the union -- you'll probably be amazed to find out
that the things they are saying sound familiar.
Carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of our library
positions takes a great deal of expertise and sometimes we must
also deal with situations that are not always positive (isn't that
why we call it work?).  Most of us have realized that to deal with
these situations, we must take advantage of the help that is
available, be it Support Staff groups or unions, 'cause it's like
John Mellencamp says, "You've got to stand for somethin', or you're
going to fall for anything"!