Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Introducing the Smith College Libraries Workers Union

The motivations and goals behind the latest group at Smith College to unionize
Caroline O’Connor

On April 9, library workers at Smith College voted unanimously in favor of unionizing with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153. The new union is known as the Smith College Libraries Workers Union (SCLWU).

A month before the election, workers at Smith College Libraries (SCL) announced their union by delivering a letter to the college’s President and Board of Trustees where they asked that the union be voluntarily recognized.

In response, the group allegedly received a message from Smith’s Human Resources office stating that “the College is not voluntarily recognizing SCLWU as the exclusive bargaining representative for any library employees.”

Jessica Ryan, a member of Smith’s class of 2017 and the current Scholarly Communications Librarian, said that if Smith voluntarily recognized SCLWU, “that would’ve shown a very good faith understanding on their part of the issues that we were trying to raise by forming a union and that we had such strong card-signing numbers.”

According to Ryan, by the time the union was announced publicly, about two-thirds of Smith College Libraries workers signed authorization forms or “cards” stating that they wish to be represented by SCLWU.

The College’s decision aligned with its historical responses towards workers’ unions. A Smith student assistant at the Josten Library explained that the library workers’ strategy before going public was to organize and gauge support from coworkers “as quietly and quickly as possible,” because the College had “shut down” previous unionization attempts in the 1990s.

Micah Walter, Smith’s Web Services Librarian, began forming the union with other workers in September 2023.

“It’s been difficult for workers within the libraries to have a voice and speak up for what we think will benefit the libraries and the Smith community the most,” Walter said.

Ryan added, “It would be nice to one day move out of a framing where unions arise when there’s very contentious and bad conditions, to one where unions arise because it’s a logical and natural thing to do.” She said that even if conditions meet workers’ requirements, the shared interests and skill base would allow them to “function better if [they’re] working together.”

Staff turnover has been a particularly large challenge for Smith’s library workers in recent years. Walter explained, “We have colleagues who left because of a lack of job agency combined with changing job descriptions, as well as inadequate pay.” When the staff leave, the remaining employees have had to work overtime and didn’t receive needed training, according to Walter.

Walter added that “the entire middle management has turned over in the past seven years or so.”

A Josten Library assistant said that turnover issues have made SCL “a really stressful environment to be working in and caused a lot of really good library employees to leave.”

They continued, “As a student, anything that improves their experiences is going to improve my experience, because they’re understaffed and have had to cut down on hours and services… whatever they need, I 100 percent support as a student, too.”

Emma Berver, a Student Circulation Assistant at SCL and junior Spanish and English double major, echoed their sentiments, saying the high turnover rate among library workers “definitely has impacted the students,” because student workers like herself have weaker relationships with their supervisors.

Additionally, since her job focuses on answering student questions, the high turnover has made it harder for her to direct students to library staff that can best assist them with specific issues.

Student support of SCLWU has also extended into practical action in solidarity with the workers.

“Two different groups of student workers have unionized in the past few months and I’m grateful to them for leading the way, for both sharing with us what it’s been like to unionize at Smith at this time and also to start raising the pressure on the College administration, because I think we’re benefitting from [the students’] action,” Walter said.

Walter noted that United Smith Student Workers (USSW) — Smith’s student food service workers’ union that formed this fall and won its National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election on February 1— was especially helpful throughout SCLWU’s organizing process, as the two unions share the same local OPEIU organizer.

Ryan added that some students in USSW also went to the President and Board of Trustees alongside the library workers to deliver their announcement letter on March 8.

The students added that the presence of unions at Smith has improved their campus culture. The Josten Library assistant explained that the increasing presence of unions on campus is “not something that’s being promoted by school administration, but something that students and workers are building themselves, which is really exciting.”

They continued, “As a college, Smith wants to support community building and we’re taking it into our own hands and building our own form of community, because the College doesn’t have a very broad vision of what community means,” adding that the presence of unions is “really empowering” and promotes solidarity between people having diverse experiences within the institution.

Berver reflected, “By being a campus that has so many unions, it shows that we value all of the workers on campus and recognize that… there are so many people that run all of the buildings, and all of the food we eat, and all of the events we have.” She added, “I feel like having a union is drawing attention to all of the work that goes on in the university setting.”

She also said that, personally, though student library workers are not a part of SCLWU, witnessing the library workers’ unionization has made her “really excited” and feel “set up a little bit better for the future.”

“When I work other jobs in the future, I’ll have a good idea of what a union is or what values I have or how I want to interact with the other people I work with,” she said.

In addition to being the latest of several unions to form at Smith College this school year, SCLWU is also a part of the general rise in unionization in the Five College area in recent years.

“The 5 colleges are a huge employer of the region. And there is data to show that, when any union is formed, that has a knockoff effect into the local industry, into the local region, into the state. So, the more unions there are, the better for all workers,” Ryan noted.

Walter added that the shift is “part of a recognition that unions are for all workers, regardless of the sector or size of the organization, and even in places where it was previously thought unthinkable to have a union.”

Looking ahead, Ryan and Walter said that SCLWU’s first main goal will be to send out a survey, which they are currently in the process of creating, asking current workers what they have enjoyed about their experiences working at SCL and what they would like to see changed.

Walter reflected, “One of the biggest challenges [of the process] is also one of the biggest rewards, and that is talking with everybody in the unit. We’re trying to make sure we connect with each and every worker.”

“We’re doing this because we love the Smith College community and we want to do the best thing for this community, and we want the libraries in particular to do the best job that we can, in a way that works well for the workers,” Walter said in closing.

Annika Singh can be reached at [email protected].

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