Solidarity is for librarians: Lessons from organizing

By Diana Castillo and Kelly McElroy

In Brief

After many years of declining union membership, there is growing interest and effort to unionize workers in many sectors within the United States. While many library workers have long been covered by public sector unions, significant wins in higher education have included our own unionization as faculty at Oregon State University. This article focuses on the intersections between unionization and academic librarianship, and the lessons we drew from the unionization process at Oregon State University. We offer an overview of basic labor concepts and processes including certification campaigns, collective bargaining, and unfair labor practices. Using an autoethnographic approach, we examine how collective organizing confronts the myths behind vocational awe, where our skills as librarians overlap with those of union organizers, and how our work with the union helped us define our faculty roles. This article offers a contribution to a slowly-growing set of union stories in libraries and hopefully offers an example of a potential path forward to collective change. 


A first contract is a milestone, but it is made of many little moments from the  original organizing, to house visits, and working in solidarity with other unions. For our union, United Academics Oregon State University (UAOSU), our first contract was wrapped up in a 26-hour marathon over Zoom, after over 18 months of bargaining. It was more than two years since we had certified our union, and six years since our original summer barbecue. The bargaining team popped bottles of fizzy wine and raised a toast – to the work we had done, and the exciting work yet to come.

While overall union membership has declined in the United States over the past decades, there are signs that something may be changing. President Biden has publicly stated he wants to be the most union-friendly administration yet (Biden, 2021), and the National Labor Relations Board has indicated some movement to ease the ability to form a union (Noah et al., 2022). New unions have been certified, including in deeply resistant companies like Starbucks and Amazon. While unions have long existed for library workers in public, academic, and school workplaces, this is an unusual moment after decades of stagnant union membership. Several significant campaigns representing library workers occurred in 2021, including several that came out of shifts in institutional policy or state law making it easier to organize. Whether or not these positive trends continue, 2022 offers an opportunity to reflect on organized labor in libraries. 

We will use our own experiences to share the energy of organizing and building a new union as faculty librarians, to share overall basics of unionization, mapping important concepts to our experience at UAOSU. As tenure-line library faculty within a union of academic and research faculty, we have had the opportunity to consider the artificiality of employment categories. In addition, we share what our unionism has taught us about our professional work, and vice versa. 

Basics of a union

Unions are organizations designed to provide employees with a collective voice when negotiating with employers over “grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work” (National Labor Relations Act | National Labor Relations Board, n.d.). Through the union, employees are able to bargain their working conditions, resulting in a collective bargaining agreement that covers everyone included in the bargaining unit. Instead of employees trying to individually solve their own problems, unions center a collective view of power, and the belief that only through working together can key employment issues be addressed. When workers begin the unionization process, they often choose to affiliate with a larger union, like the Association of American University Professors (AAUP), Communications Workers of America (CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), or American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). 

Unions are made up of one or more bargaining units, which are the groups represented in a collective bargaining agreement. Typically, the bargaining unit must represent workers who constitute a “community of interest,” sharing similar concerns as workers. Often this falls along lines of classification of jobs, which group employees with similar job duties. In the state of Oregon, when there is a unionization drive at a public employer—such as a public university—the state Employment Relations Board evaluates the scope of the bargaining unit, and who is or is not included at the point when the union is formalized (Oregon Employment Relations Board, n.d.). So, there is an incentive for a prospective union to be conservative in defining a bargaining unit, as a negative result from the ERB would be a setback to organizing. The central idea behind a bargaining unit is that there will be shared interests when the unit starts bargaining for a contract.  As a result, in libraries, you may find workers falling into separate bargaining units as classified staff compared to librarians. While there are some librarian-specific bargaining units at academic institutions, at ours we are part of the larger faculty union due to our classification as tenure-track faculty.

Once a bargaining unit has been formed, the next step is collective bargaining with the employer. While collective bargaining rights may be limited by state law—in Texas, for example, public employees are prohibited from participating in collective bargaining or striking (Texas Government Code Title 6 – Public Officers and Employees, 1993)—in general collective bargaining addresses working conditions such as wages, benefits, and working hours. The union can also bring additional issues to the table, such as childcare, but employers are not obligated to address them – these are known as permissive, rather than mandatory, subjects of bargaining. Contract negotiations can take months or even years. In many cases, contract negotiations address long-standing, entrenched problems, which require many passes back and forth to come to any agreement. Employers often hold back on crucial articles such as salary, holding them to the last minute. One of the most powerful tools for workers is the ability to withhold our labor through a strike. This often occurs in conjunction with closing a difficult contract negotiation – for example, in early 2020 public librarians in Cleveland voted to authorize a strike after a contentious contract negotiation (Kilpatrick, 2020). A strike authorization is how members give the union the go-ahead to go on strike if needed – it does not commit the union to going on strike, but it lets the employer know that it is an immediate possibility. In Cleveland, shortly after authorizing the strike the union and the library system reached an agreement. Lockouts are the employer equivalent to a strike, which have been recently seen in the Chicago Public Schools, where teachers began teaching remotely and were locked out of their work accounts (Freiman, 2022), and with the recently concluded contract negotiations with Major League Baseball (James, 2021). 

The crux of many collective bargaining agreements is the ability to grieve violations of the contract, of relevant policy, etc. In any strong contract, this will include a path, if the grievance is not resolved, to third party arbitration. While going to arbitration can be a very expensive process, it is a significant pressure to employers to resolve grievances early on. The grievance process is a significant difference from a non-unionized environment, where the only party enforcing any policies is the employer, which may not be committed to fair process. The grievance process builds power for employees who would otherwise have no redress. 

As part of the national push for unionization, there has been an increase in new bargaining units and unions representing library workers, both in academic and public libraries (see Table 1). A few merit additional discussion. The Baltimore County Public Library bargaining unit was created only after Maryland state law changed to permit collective bargaining. The University of Michigan GLAM bargaining unit was formed after the university’s Board of Regents voted in a policy of remaining neutral on employee organizing campaigns. Employers are prohibited by law from actively interfering in an organizing campaign. This does not mean that they don’t interfere. Prohibited activities such as required anti-union meetings are common, as recently seen in attempts to unionize Amazon worksites. Unions can contest such activities by filing unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board or state employment relations board. Even when these are upheld, it may be too late to undo the damage to an organizing campaign. Employer resistance to union organizing can suppress enthusiasm and cause confusion among potential members. 

Finally, new unions at the University of Washington Libraries and Northwestern University Library represent library workers across classifications, in both cases picking up all non-management workers who are not already represented. As we noted above, both the union and the employer have competing interests in shaping the bargaining unit. The union builds power through numbers, which is why employers typically seek to limit the scope of the bargaining unit. The employer may also pit workers against one another, whether unionized or not. These expansive types of bargaining units seek to break down the artificial divisions that can prevent solidarity across workers, by highlighting their shared interests. 

Table 1: A sample of library unions or bargaining units formed in 2021

LibraryType of libraryAffiliate
Baltimore County Public LibrarypublicInternational Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMA)
Northwestern University LibraryacademicService Employees International Union (SEIU)
Worthington Librariespublic
University of Pittsburgh LibrariesacademicUnited Steelworkers
Niles Maine District Librarypublic
Hillsboro Public Librariespublic
University of Michigan LibrariesacademicAmerican Federation of Teachers
University of Washington LibrariesacademicSEIU
Identified with thanks to http://unionlibraryworkers.blogspot.com/

Process at OSU

Given the current surge of unionization drives, we want to share our local experience of building our union. United Academics of Oregon State University (UAOSU) represents all research and teaching faculty, including post-docs, faculty research assistants, instructors, as well as tenure-line professors. Librarians at OSU are typically tenure-track, which includes a research component in their job description. If there is no research component to their job description, they are classified as “professional faculty”. This category is widely used across the university, and includes administrators, office managers, advisors, and other student affairs professionals.

When each of us started at OSU, there was no formal union. Historically, OSU faculty formed an advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which waxed and waned in interest, building strength around issues of an unpopular furlough in the 2010s, as well as doing extensive work to document the concerns of fixed-term instructors. As far as we know, library faculty were not deeply engaged in the work of the advocacy chapter. In the years after faculty at the University of Oregon unionized in 2012, in a joint affiliation between the AAUP and American Federation of Teachers, faculty began to organize more formally at OSU, leading to an eventual certification – formally recognized by the state and the employer – in June 2018. 

The certification campaign used the card check process, which involves getting 50% +1 of the potential bargaining unit to sign a card affirming that yes, they approve of the establishment of a union. This is an alternative to a one-time vote, where workers would cast ballots on an election day. Given the geographical spread of our faculty at three campuses and at extension offices and field stations around the state, the card check process was a way to ensure that everyone had a say in the campaign. For example, there are faculty whose research takes them out to sea for months – they were able to sign a card before heading out to the field rather than potentially missing the day of the vote.

In contrast to the recent University of Michigan win, our administration did not take a neutral stance on the unionization process. The administration created an FAQ website which only listed questions implying reasons to opt against the union. We filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) against the administration, contesting that this FAQ violated state laws that prohibit spending public funds to influence employee decisions on unionization and interfering with employee rights to unionize. The state Employment Relations Board (ERB) ultimately required the site to be taken down, which the administration appealed (and lost). Our experience was not uncommon. Employers rarely take a neutral position, and often find ways to fight unionization, particularly in the private sector, as we have seen recently in activities by Amazon, REI, and Starbucks, such as threatening loss of benefits to unionized employees, mandatory anti-union meetings, and reducing work hours of union activists. But even when employers engage in prohibited interference, the tools of enforcement are weak. Filing a ULP takes time and potentially expensive legal support. While we ultimately won, it came much too late to be of immediate use, as the initial ERB decision came well after we had completed our certification – and there’s no way to know the damage done to our campaign by that FAQ site. 

Our initial contract negotiations began in late fall 2018, continuing by Zoom after COVID took our campus remote. Kelly was a member of that initial bargaining team, and the only librarian on the team. The contract was finalized and ratified in June 2020. Diana has served on the elections committee, ensuring that our contract, constitution and bylaws, and officer elections have run smoothly from the start. The first slate of elected officers and representatives (stewards) took office in January 2021. Kelly is an officer and has continued to participate in bargaining, including most recently as lead negotiator. Diana continues as part of the elections committee, and has also worked with the membership and organizing committee, including launching phonebanking parties, which allowed us to continue organizing conversations by Zoom and phone during the pandemic. 

Lessons from our work 

After informal conversations about some of these topics, we decided to use an autoethnographic approach to explore these issues. Storytelling and one-on-one conversation is a deep part of union and organizing culture. We see this piece as building on existing library literature exploring the lived experiences of academic librarian unionists (McCullough & Mills, 2018; Phillips et al., 2019; Wheeler et al., 2014). We used a form of interactive interviewing (Anderson & Glass-Coffin, 2013): over several weeks, we exchanged open-ended questions for our individual reflection, then came back together for synchronous conversation, jotting down notes as we went. We ultimately sifted through these notes and identified three prominent themes, described below.

Unionization as a tool against vocational awe

As coined by Fobazi Ettarh, vocational awe refers to “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique” (Ettarh, 2018). Vocational awe also conveniently supports the management goals of boosting productivity and eliminating costs: in her original article, Ettarh notes the negative impact vocational awe has on compensation, job creep, and diversity. Vocational awe can be deployed by management against workers; for example to try to get us to do more with less, to add new responsibilities, to accept stagnant wages. Appeals to the needs of our users may be raised to justify management actions despite any negative impact on workers. The internalized and often unspoken beliefs create a barrier to speaking out, and may brand others as complainers. A union offers a collective path to resist vocational awe, by bringing workers together to find collective solutions to the problems presented by employers as justification for vocational awe. As an organization bringing workers together, we recognize work as work – we may love it, but we are always aware that we are exchanging our labor for our salary. 

Vocational awe has affected both of us at various points through our professional careers: Diana experienced its use as an excuse for low wages when working in the DC non-profit sector, which led to significant burnout and a general disillusionment with that particular industry. Kelly graduated from library school at the height of the recession, and after applying for dozens of jobs, finally got a full-time position, where she felt obliged to demonstrate gratitude for getting to work in a library at all. 

As academic librarians, we not only see how vocational awe has a negative effect on librarians, but also those who work in higher education more generally. In a blog post discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on higher education, John Warner draws upon Ettarh’s writing to discuss a variant of vocational awe he calls “institutional awe”, which impacts “many non-tenure-track instructors who are able to sustain themselves at least partially on the knowledge that their work ‘matters’ and without them hurling themselves into the breach of austerity, students would [be] terribly harmed” (Warner, 2020). In the case of higher education, vocational/institutional awe allows management to impose budget cuts and increase demands on workers without committing additional funds or support. At our university, there are 9-month faculty members who work throughout the summer without pay as a matter of course. We have heard union organizers say that they have to remind striking academics to not grade papers while on strike. When you believe your work to be a vocation, it can be easy to forget that a strike only works if you actually withhold your labor, out of commitment to the students you serve. The invisible service burden imposed on faculty of color and queer and trans faculty provides another example, where a commitment to students gets exploited by institutions unwilling to compensate the added work (Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017). A union offers pathways to make our values concrete, recognizing that our working conditions are not exempt from oppressive systems, no matter how good our intentions. 

For workers who believe that their work is in service to a higher cause, starting or joining a union may not initially fit their worldview. Vocational awe focuses on our individual role, rather than thinking of our work as work, let alone as a space for collective action. Kelly has seen this mindset emerge in collective bargaining, but really in any conversations about resources, where a willingness to do without is tacitly framed as noble. Diana also saw this when working in D.C., where the focus for non-profits is how to limit the amount of staff and overhead costs they pay compared to their other expenditures focusing on the organization’s mission. Pushes for additional resources become suspect or can be viewed as seeking more than is fair. Unionization efforts, however, can lead to a reexamination of the good and bad in a particular field. Unionized academics and teachers have long pointed out that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. If there are inadequate technology or unsafe classrooms, that affects faculty and students alike. 

Unique role librarians play in a union (library skills are union skills and vice versa)

Throughout our conversations, we found ourselves coming back to the ways that library skills and union or organizing skills seem to overlap. In part, this reflects specific professional skills and orientations that library workers often have – wanting to help, solving problems, connecting people with what they need – which we felt particularly as members of a bargaining unit that includes non-library workers. OSU is a heavily STEM university, and that shapes some of the culture and skills in our bargaining unit. We have both noticed that the following professional soft skills have been places we feel we have expertise to contribute. While some of these skills and orientations can contribute to the isolating and negative conditions of vocational awe, we’ve found that they can also be repurposed to union work toward building collective power. 

A key skill overlap is actively listening and working with the other person to find a solution. With librarians, this may cover a wide range of issues – reference questions, finding a particular book for a patron, or working with them to address a technological issue are all possibilities. In a union, while this might involve engaging a potential member and listening to their concerns, it may also come into play when sitting across the bargaining table from management. These examples have different applications. For Diana, phone-banking for potential members required her to listen to the concerns of members, and to explain our union as it connected back to their experiences. Pitching library services also can require this – we need to understand what people need, and describe the library in terms they can understand. For Kelly, at the bargaining table, her active listening was in the context of a long, drawn-out process, with an oppositional partner. Listening to what management is saying, and being able to respond is a vital skill to ensure the continued strength of the union.  

This can also mean admitting that you don’t know something, and getting more information. As library workers, we are trained to be comfortable with making referrals, and with learning together – we don’t need to just be right in the moment. 

A similar skill that comes into play is the ability to recognize there are going to be moments when you won’t be able to please everyone. While library workers often seek to do as much as possible to meet the needs of our users, we also navigate shrinking budgets, aging equipment, and other limitations on what we can do. We often need to set expectations for users about what we can actually do for them, such as explaining why we can’t purchase that expensive database just for one potential user. Both of us have reflected on the ways that union work has helped us thicken our skin: rejection during office visits, heated conversations with coworkers who really disagree on important issues, and the knowledge that there are people who will just never get on board. But along with this, it has also highlighted the joy of long-term commitment. Much as the library is there for you, whether you use it right now or not, the union is there for you, whether you are ready for it or not. Developing this resilience allows us to both take a stand more easily – we don’t need everyone to like it – but also to be more strategic as we take on new projects and consider how to build support as needed. Kelly noted that she likes to know where people stand on an issue before it comes to a decision, much as union campaigns find ways to test where people stand before it really matters. 

There are places where the skills and experiences we bring from our librarianship diverge with the goals of a union, however. While academic libraries certainly have a reference orientation that focuses on teaching folks to do their own research, rather than finding answers for them, union work is much more focused on getting folks activated and supporting them to solve their own problems together. A collective view of power does not align with the savior complex that we sometimes encounter (and have probably perpetuated at times) in libraries — that all you need to do is ask a librarian and your problems will be solved. 

Unions and the faculty role for librarians

Although we are in different stages in our careers – Diana identifies as an early career librarian, while Kelly has been in the profession for over a decade – we both find that our union work has helped define our sense of working identity. Diana noted that our union has helped place her work within a broader campus community, which was particularly important to counter the isolation of the pandemic. For Kelly, union work has helped combat mid-career burnout by refocusing on collective goals rather than fixating on individual achievement. 

Given that our union represents all teaching and research faculty, we are connected with researchers, disciplinary faculty, and fixed-term instructors through shared interests as workers. While there is ambivalence about faculty status for librarians among academic librarians, faculty status is the structure that brings us together with these other workers, as well as offers additional protections we might not otherwise have access to (Galbraith et al., 2017). Discussion of faculty status for librarians tends to focus either on its benefits in terms of respectability or on the poor fit and how other faculty still don’t respect us. Our union has shown us that solidarity, not respect, is what matters. Our union brings faculty with different types of jobs and different disciplines together to find out what we have in common. Demonstrating that we have similar interests and struggles helps form the bonds that allow us to fight for a more equitable university.

Contract bargaining was one place where the similarities – and differences – became clear and actionable. As a librarian on the bargaining team for our initial contract, Kelly was able to highlight the places where our differences mattered – and, much more often, to reinforce what were widely and deeply shared concerns. To give just one example, while most instructional faculty work nine months each year, librarians work all year round – but we are not the only ones. Many research faculty are on similar appointments. We were also able to establish fairly clear terms around academic freedom. While academic freedom cases typically center on teaching faculty or published research, we now have had those rights enshrined for all bargaining unit faculty, including librarians and those members not on tenure-track. In contrast, bargaining librarians at the University of California were unable to establish this right in their new contract. Because they were not classified as tenure-track faculty, the university administration did not view academic freedom as a right worth explicitly protecting.

We reflect on this as a place where being tenure-line faculty and being union-represented protects this right. The Association of American University Professors often refers to the three-legged stool that strong faculty rest on: academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance. As tenure lines for librarians can be removed by the whim of higher administration – as seen very recently at Texas A&M University (Maclaurin, 2022) – union representation provides additional protection, not just for librarians but for other faculty members. For Kelly, who initially had some skepticism about coming into a tenure track position when she came to her job at OSU, union work with faculty across rank and classification has clarified that attacks on librarian tenure are part of a larger project to weaken tenure for all faculty. Because of the skepticism around faculty status for librarians, administrators may view us as an entry point for starting to dismantle the tenure strategy overall. Without union protection and solidarity, we are vulnerable. 

In sum, while we understand the ambivalence about faculty status and tenure for librarians, we invite librarians to think critically and creatively about who their comrades may be and where their interests intersect. While library work can be structured in many different ways, librarians must consider who is served by shifting work categories or classifications – whether that means tenure line faculty positions, overdependence on part-time or temporary labor, or poorly paid staff positions. We can both defend structures like tenure which offer protection to workers, and also seek to expand protections and respect to all workers (Glusker et al., 2022). 

Conclusions, next steps

Through our active participation in our faculty union, we have seen how working collectively both clarifies and challenges our perceptions of what it means to be both a librarian and faculty member. We have seen how our skills as librarians can assist us in the ongoing process of building and sustaining a strong union, as well as how working within a union combats vocational awe within the library and the academy, and helps define what we do as labor. We have also seen how unionization is an ongoing, iterative process that doesn’t end when the contract is signed. Our union, in addition to negotiating our contract, also bargained with the university over COVID-19 related measures such as salary cuts and remote learning. This continual process allows us to push forward on measures that will benefit our members incorporating lessons we’ve learned through previous efforts. 

For librarians who already work in unionized positions, we hope this recent push towards unionization with new bargaining units may lead to a reevaluation of how their existing unions may or may not serve their current needs. As workers, we are the union, and democratic unions reflect the needs and vision of their members. We believe that there is room for both new and older unions to learn from each other, both in what has traditionally worked and what union norms should be challenged and changed. In this uncertain time, for both post-secondary education workers and librarians, working together is the best guarantee for continued success and ensuring that the field is a better place for those who come after us.


Our deep thanks to our peer reviewers, Emily Drabinski and Kellee Warren, and editor Ian Beilin for the ways they shaped this piece. Thank you to all our fellow members and activists at UAOSU for inspiring this piece, and solidarity to everyone doing the hard work to unionize their workplace. 

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