By: Jim McAsey
This article was originally published in Labor Notes and is republished with permission.
The best way to increase union membership on the eve of the Janus decision? Build a fighting campaign in your workplace. If there’s no fight, there’s nothing to join.
The 100 library support staff in Camden County, New Jersey, members of Communications Workers Local 1014, provide a good example. We won a contract that will raise minimum pay from $8.92 per hour to $15 per hour by 2019. And the unit went from 65 percent union membership to 93 percent.
LIBRARIES ARE CRITICAL
Our campaign contrasted the community importance of libraries with the low pay and mistreatment of the support staff who run circulation, order and process books, and assist patrons with the computers.
“Libraries are more than buildings with books; we are the social service of last resort,” said Amber Pallante, a library assistant at the South County Branch. “We are a safe haven for kids after school in dangerous neighborhoods. We help people apply for jobs and food stamps and coupons so they can afford food. You need to register to vote? Come to the library. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Yet the pay for most Local 1014 members hovered just above the state minimum wage for years. “The fact that we are the lowest-paid county employees and that we are 75 percent female is not a coincidence,” said Pallante.
GOT MORE STEWARDS
The most important step in the contract campaign was to activate more rank-and-file leaders. We recruited stewards at all eight branches and in key departments at the main branch. Emboldened by an inspiring goal—a $15-an-hour minimum wage for library staff—people were willing to step up. “I saw a change in our members,” said Solomon Thomas, a library assistant and new steward. “A lot of people rallied behind the message.”
Along with the search for new stewards, we conducted a bargaining survey through one-to-one, in-person conversations, where stewards or union reps asked members about their priorities in bargaining. These conversations affirmed that wages were the top priority.
FREE SPEECH FIGHT
Our first direct action was to all wear the same T-shirt that read, “Camden County Library: Highest-Rated County Service, Lowest-Paid County Workers.”
Within the first few minutes that workers wore the shirts, the library director freaked and demanded everyone remove the shirts or face discipline. Not yet accustomed to resisting authority, workers complied but quickly filed an unfair labor practice charge. Months later, as contract negotiations came to a head, we won a precedent-setting decision from the Public Employee Relations Commission on the legal right to wear union gear, even if management finds the message offensive.
Temporarily foiled in the rollout of our union T-shirts, we organized the first rally outside the library in recent memory. Just about everyone came out and participated. A speaker and a playlist of protest songs added a festive vibe.
“I’m not really big on public speaking. I work in a library, remember,” said Miranda Maher, a library assistant at the Vogelson branch. But co-workers said her speech inspired them.
By the time the manager at the biggest library branch passed around a “volunteer list” to work the lucrative yearly book sale, members were riled up.
“Management was pretty shocked when no one signed up,” said Joanne McCarty, a clerk. “We sent a clear message that they can’t run this place without us.” We were able to settle the contract at the next mediation session—a reminder that nothing gets the boss’s attention like withholding our labor.
Members ratified the new contract in November, but our fight doesn’t stop there. We are going to stand with our librarian sisters and brothers, members of AFSCME Local 1454, who are still fighting for a contract. We’ll fight to enforce our current contract and build early for our next contract negotiations.
And there is more recruiting to do. “Ninety-three percent membership ain’t bad, but I’m not going to stop until we get to 100,” said Pallante. As Labor Notes went to press, we got another card.
Jim McAsey is a CWA national staff rep.
A version of this story appeared in Labor Notes #465, December 2017.