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Pratt Library Workers Intend to Form a Union

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“Baltimore is a union town!” So say longtime organizers at union rallies I’ve covered in the last year. This proclamation inevitably gins up hoots and cheers, shouting out recent upticks in organizing efforts at local art institutions, but it also nods to the labor movement’s extensive history in the city of Baltimore. Workers from the Enoch Pratt Free Library are the latest to join that wave.

On Wednesday, June 1, employees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system announced their plan to unionize. Pratt Workers United is seeking voluntary recognition from Pratt leadership to join AFSCME Council 67, which is the same council that will represent workers at the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art if their respective campaigns are successful.

According to PWU’s mission statement, the employees who want to unionize are both full-time and part-time, and they work across the library’s departments, from front-of-house security, custodians, and circulation staff to back-end tech and maintenance, programs and outreach staff, artists, designers, and book binders, among many other roles. The union’s demands include better wages and benefits for all, clearer paths to advancement, and more staff input on working conditions. “We deserve to have our expertise, knowledge, and ideas seen as valuable resources,” the statement reads. “We deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”

If successful, Pratt Workers United would represent more than 300 eligible staff in the library’s Central Branch and the 21 other branches across the city. Organizers say that a majority of workers have already expressed support to form a union and that they plan to notify the Pratt’s administration of their intent this week. They are hoping leadership voluntarily recognizes the union.

When reached for comment by email, the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s spokesperson sent the following: “The Pratt Library respects our employees’ right to select union representation if that’s what they choose. We look forward to answering any questions our employees may have about that process going forward.”

 

Pratt Workers United announcement via Twitter

 

I know that it is this great place and I want it to be great for its employees. And by that it can be better for its patrons.
Masetsaba Woodland, librarian and organizer

Masetsaba Woodland, a librarian in the Central Branch’s Collection Development Department, says she and her colleagues have been organizing since May 2021. “To have it come to this point, where we’ve gathered support, where we are ready to be public to launch, I was buzzing all day,” Woodland said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Woodland has worked for the Pratt for the last eight years, but the connection has been lifelong. As a kid, she frequented the Walbrook Branch in her neighborhood; in high school, she took the bus downtown to the Central Branch. “The Pratt has always been my library,” Woodland said. “I’ve always loved the library, it’s been a place of safety and comfort and just magic for me.”

That early spark seems to motivate her organizing. “I know that it is this great place and I want it to be great for its employees,” she said. “And by that it can be better for its patrons.”

For many library workers, connecting patrons to the resources and research materials they came in for is gratifying. When Woodland previously worked in the Information Services department, which staffs the public computer center, she helped people edit their resumes, make spreadsheets and slideshows, and even witnessed a woman finish an online degree program. “Every day, she would come in and work on the same computer,” Woodland recalled. “Before I left the department, she graduated. And she was so just grateful that we were there to help her, that we were patient with her because she wasn’t a strong computer user. But she was able to finish her degree on the computer because we were able to help her every day.”

Although many library staff members work with the public all the time, Woodland says that they often don’t have a say on changes that impact their ability to serve the public. She mentions that after the Central Branch’s $115-million renovation, the big information desk that visitors could easily spot upon entry was replaced by a small podium and a new “roving” model to greet patrons. Staff voiced concerns, but the new plan went forward anyway. “We said that the patrons aren’t going to know where to find us. They’re gonna go to the circulation desk, who’s already understaffed and stressed out—they’re gonna wander around, they’re gonna get frustrated and leave,” she said. “That’s just one instance where we were the ones that were working the floor, so we could tell how our patrons interacted with the space, [but] we weren’t heard.”

Librarianship is kind of mythologized, similarly to teachers, where we find ourselves having to pull things together a lot ... We should be able to get the resources we need.
Josie Breck, library associate and organizer

As with every institution, the Pratt had to figure out how to retool its services during the pandemic. Though the libraries were closed, people could still borrow books online and pick them up through Sidewalk Services or have them sent through the mail. Some branches started offering free “drive-in” Wi-Fi, and the “Bookmobile” became a mobile hotspot, going to neighborhoods that have limited internet connectivity. Last year, people desperate for COVID-19 tests lined up outside their local branches for free test kits.

Workers are proud of how the library was able to respond, but they also note that the pandemic has highlighted extant communication issues within the institution. “[At the start of the pandemic] there was confusion, of course, everyone was unsure at first, but the confusion often didn’t end,” Woodland said. “We were often left unsure as to how we were supposed to continue.”

Josie Breck, an organizer and a Library Associate at the Central Branch, says that a union could standardize job training and focus job duties, avoiding what she calls “responsibility creep.” When Breck started working in the Pratt’s children’s department four years ago, she says she received little training before her first day on the job. And after a previous supervisor was promoted, the position remained unfilled, necessitating her having to “take on the responsibilities of a degreed children’s librarian.”

“Librarianship is kind of mythologized, similarly to teachers, where we find ourselves having to pull things together a lot,” Breck said. “We should be able to get the resources we need.” 

There have been previous conversations about unionizing among Pratt library workers over the years, but this is the furthest they have gotten in the process and the first time their organizing has gone public. The effort has allowed coworkers to get to know each other better—a rare happening even prior to the pandemic.

“It’s harder to know your coworkers that are in different buildings because we’re so spread out around the city,” Woodland said. “Outside of a staff day once a year, we don’t have those opportunities to get together and connect. So this has just been a process of discovering who people are and connecting with people and meeting really amazing people who are the Pratt. I’ve met the Pratt through this process.”

 

Header image source: Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Photographer: Carol M. Highsmith

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