Workers at a public library system in Colombia are voting this week to become the only active union of public librarians in the state.
If staff at the Daniel Boone Regional Library, which has branches in Columbia, Fulton, Ashland and Holts Summit, ratify the union, they would join a growing unionizing movement across the country, sparked in part by the coronavirus pandemic.
The problems cited by supporters are typical of most union efforts – the need for better wages and benefits, career opportunities and security concerns, and a lack of communication with administration.
Union advocates say the pandemic has created a multitude of problems and underscored some that already existed: high staff turnover, unequal treatment of employees, abuse of employees by customers for masking, and a lack of clear direction for pandemic-related work.
Tori Patrick, a full-time circulation assistant at the library, said the union has strong support, but acknowledged that some staff don’t see the need for a union, particularly in the smaller branches outside of Colombia.
“It was a difficult connection. We didn’t know who worked there and how to talk to them,” Patrick said. “We’ve made some strong strides, but we’re still facing a difficult path in getting in touch with some workers.”
Executive Director Margaret Conroy said the library system has competitive benefits and pay, and offers a “robust” response to safety and health issues caused by the pandemic.
She said she was unaware of the communication issues because union supporters chose not to raise their concerns with management before organizing.
Conroy said if the union is ratified, administrators will work in good faith with staff, but the library faces budget constraints that private companies don’t face because it derives 97.6% of its revenue from property taxes.
“We are not the same as Starbucks and Amazon. We can’t raise prices to increase sales,” she said. “We have to work within the budget that taxpayers provide.”
Employees voting Wednesday through Saturday would be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
If the union is formed, Missouri workers would join more than 2,000 cultural workers who have joined AFSCME since 2019, including museum, zoo and science center workers and library workers from Ohio, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington and Maryland.
The problems facing library staff are the same as those driving nationwide unionization efforts, including at Amazon and Starbuckssaid Professor John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
A Gallup poll found that as of September 2021, about 68% of Americans supported unions — the highest approval rating since 71% in 1965.
Despite those numbers, it’s unclear whether the current surge in union popularity will continue, Logan said.
“Nobody’s saying that’s why we’re going to see millions of new union members,” Logan said. “In the past there were times when there was a union impetus and everything went up in smoke. But that’s a bit different, there’s a sense that the pandemic has fundamentally changed something in the work landscape.”