Militant Journalism

Library workers organize in Ferndale, Michigan

On Dec. 5, workers at the Ferndale Area District Library in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale publicly announced their campaign to form a union under the name Ferndale Library Workers Union. This announcement coincided with a petition to the Ferndale Library Board to place “Voluntary recognition of the FADL union” on the agenda for the board’s scheduled meeting on Dec. 15.

Union organizers have requested to be voluntarily recognized by the board in order to avoid having to go through the lengthy administrative process of having an election pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act. However, if the board chooses to not voluntarily recognize the union at the meeting, the union will file a petition with the NLRB to start the election process on Dec. 16. Union organizer and Youth Librarian Mary Grahame Hunter said, “We have a supermajority of library workers in support of the union so we’re confident we’d win our election anyway.”

Workers demand fair pay, commitment to diversity

Workers at FADL are unionizing to secure a collectively bargained contract that would establish fair pay among workers to narrow the wide pay gap between librarians and support staff, ensure consistent enforcement of workers’ rights, and demand actions from FADL to create a workplace with a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the statement announcing the unionizing campaign, FLW said, “As library workers, we understand how crucial libraries are to a democratic society, and it is time for our workplace to reflect the participatory citizenship that our institution supports. Establishing a union will give us a place at the decision-making table, regularize our work duties and conditions through a formal contract, and allow us to advocate for the changes that will make our library a fairer workplace and an even stronger resource for Ferndale and its surrounding communities.”

FLW is organizing with the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, CWA Local 34022, which was established in 1934 and represents journalists, copy editors, designers, photographers, public relations workers, and advertising representatives from five newspapers and two unions in the Detroit area. Once the union is recognized, either voluntarily by the Library Board or following a successful election, the library workers totaling 22 people will become the first library organized with the Newspaper Guild.

FLW and the Newspaper Guild mutually felt that this connection made the most sense for workers at FADL because of the similarities in the workplace struggles of newsrooms and libraries, such as the inequalities in pay and lack of national representation that is glaringly obvious in the area anchored by Detroit, a city whose population is 78% Black, according to the 2020 Census.

‘We want to make sure that the library stays a great place to work

For the library workers at FADL who are fighting to organize a union in their workplace for the first time, the solidarity between each other and the wave of public support that FLW has received so far has generated much-needed optimism. “I am very excited at the opportunity to unionize since it would mean that our voices as employees will have a formal place at the table during conversations that will affect our workplace,” said Erin Luetz, a Youth Librarian who has worked at FADL since 2019.

In envisioning what a good contract would look like to the union, one of the key demands FLW is making is the guarantee of an equitable pay schedule for workers. The Library Board has publicly released pay schedules to workers that has revealed a massive pay gap between librarians and other workers. To Hunter and the others, the fact that those without Master’s degrees are paid significantly less than the librarians who are required to have them is unacceptable: “This place would fall apart without the front desk staff and library pages that help us keep the library running.”

In addition to the struggle for equitable wages, FLW is demanding increased protection and enforcement of workers’ rights that are currently applied in dramatically different ways across the departments at FADL. This is in part caused by a high turnover rate amongst management, with some managers respecting those that work under their direction and others sparingly so. Kerry Patterson, a circulation specialist working at FADL since 2012, said that in her time at the library there have been four different directors, two of whom were merely interim directors. Some library workers have reported being forced to work as many as 11 days in a row because the library is open seven days a week. “FADL is a great place to work, but people come and go. We want to make sure that the library stays a great place to work,” Patterson said.

FLW is committed to creating a workplace that better acts upon its commitment to diversity and inclusion. “Libraries are overwhelmingly white and this inevitably skews the way that work is thought of and performed by management regarding non-white staff and patrons,” Hunter said.

Community voices support for workers at last-minute special meeting

Agenda of the Library Board Special Meeting, a publicly posted government document.
Agenda of the Library Board Special Meeting, a publicly posted government document.

On the morning of Dec. 9, the Ferndale Library Board quietly issued a public notice available only on the FADL website that there would be a special meeting of the board that would take place on Dec 10. The agenda posted for this meeting was peculiarly vague. Noticeably, the only item of substance was Item 5, which denoted that a closed session of the board was to take place. When pressed by a Ferndale resident prior to the public comment portion about why the special meeting was called, board members were silent and one merely referred back to the vague description on the agenda.

Under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, public bodies like the Ferndale Library Board are required to hold public meetings. Public bodies may meet in a closed session only for one or more of the permitted purposes provided by that statute and all closed sessions must occur during the course of an open meeting. The section cited by the board for this meeting is MCL 15.268(1)(h), which provides that a permitted purpose for a closed session is, “To consider material exempt from discussion or disclosure by state or federal statute.”

According to the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys, closed sessions held under this particular subsection most frequently utilize Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, particularly the attorney-client privilege exemption. In such cases, the scope of the discussion must be limited to legal matters and the minutes of an open meeting must include the purpose or purposes for which a closed meeting is held. Conveniently for the board, proposed minutes, or those that are not adopted until the next public meeting, can be made available as late as eight days later, or Dec. 18 in this case. While closed session minutes must be approved in an open meeting with the contents kept confidential, such minutes are not disclosed to the public unless a lawsuit is filed under the OMA that compels their disclosure.

Despite the last-minute announcement, community members showed up to the special meeting to voice their support for FLW. “Board meetings normally have low attendance so I’m really happy that so many people came out to support us,” Patterson, one of several library workers who attended, said after the meeting. In total, 17 people from Ferndale and surrounding communities attended and 13 gave public comments. Commenters spoke to a range of reasons as to why the board’s voluntary recognition of the union was important to them from ensuring security for future library workers to the importance of noncommodified spaces like public libraries in a capitalist society where virtually all social spaces operate for private profit. All were supportive of FLW and called on the board to voluntarily recognize the union at their upcoming meeting on Dec. 15.

Public solidarity with FLW

The Dec. 5 announcement of the unionizing campaign by FLW came with a call to action for residents of Ferndale and surrounding communities. Currently 17 out of the 22 eligible workers have joined the union, and since going public, more are expressing interest. Youth Librarian Damon Verdema, who supports the unionizing effort being waged, said, “A union is a great part of the democratic process for workers — when we make our voices heard and have a seat at the table that decides how the workplace is run, we realize there’s strength in numbers.”

FLW are asking for community support to help carry the momentum for the unionizing campaign going into the Dec. 15 meeting. Organizers have reached out to several local community and political organizations including the Party for Socialism and Liberation – Detroit to help them spread the call to action. Specifically, FLW suggests that those who want to stand in solidarity with their struggle take the following actions:

  • Announce your support for the Ferndale Library Workers Union on social media and to friends and family.
  • Visit the Ferndale Area District Library during open hours, speak to a library worker at any of the library desks, and ask to submit a positive patron feedback report — these get emailed to the entire staff!
  • Email FADL Director Jenny Marr at [email protected] to declare your support for the Ferndale Library Workers Union and ask that the board voluntarily recognize the union on Dec. 15.

Even though this is the first time any of the library workers at FADL have taken part in organizing a union, they are firmly committed to building a piece of a better world that is possible when we organize together.

Feature photo: Workers are organizing for a union at Ferndale Public Library. Liberation photo

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