Library workers refuse to be shushed!


SEATTLE—About 180 workers at the University of Washington went on a one-day strike on Oct. 13. They are fed up with management’s stalling and refusing to seriously negotiate. Represented by Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), they include librarians, technical workers in the libraries, and workers at the UW Press.

They chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho! UW stalling has to go!” and “UW, rich and rude! We don’t like your attitude!”

These workers joined SEIU in June 2021 and started bargaining in October 2021. University management has dragged its feet and even demanded takeaways. A union leaflet says: “UW consistently takes months to respond to proposals. We’re now at 2 months with no response on Compensation, 6 months with no response on Professional Development and 7 months with no response on the Promotion Process for librarians.”

People at the rally in front of the main library noted several important issues:

  • Raises—There have been no regular raises in three years, while the cost of living has gone up 16%. Some workers have not received a wage increase in eight years! “The UW is celebrated as one of the top research institutions in the world but ranks 96th out of 100 among comparable institutions for library staff pay. Stagnant wages have pushed us farther and farther away from campus. 47% of members report commutes of over an hour, and an additional 18% report commutes of over two hours,” said the union brochure. Poor pay increases the problem of staff vacancies. As one worker put it, “We do it for love, but we have to pay the bills!”
  • Anti-Racism—“UW Libraries and Press have a dismal record of retaining BIPOC staff. We’re striking for racial justice and for all workers,” says the union brochure. Management refused to accept the union’s demands to rectify this poor record.
  • Expansion of the definition of the family for benefits. Management rejects the idea of expanding “family” to include family members by choice. This negatively impacts LGBTQ workers.
  • Workplace Protection—Health and safety, especially regarding COVID.
  • Workload and short staffing—According to the union, “Staffing cuts and unfilled positions have left many of our colleagues consistently working 10 to 20 hours of overtime per week (without overtime pay).” One worker noted several different library positions that have been cut or are vacant for long periods.
  • Vacation—Management is trying to cut the amount of vacation librarians can accrue from 288 hours down to 240 hours.

UW management is hostile to reaching a contract for these workers. One UW official said openly: “Leadership[management] should not be constrained by a collective agreement.”

The workers who went on strike are not covered by laws that clearly lay out union negotiation procedures for “classified” employees. (Classified employees include office workers, technicians, food service and grounds keepers, skilled trades, etc.) The librarians are academic employees, in the same category as aculty. The technical workers are exempt or professional staff. These workers have fewer layoff rights and no right to overtime pay.

Management is using these classifications to divide workers and limit their bargaining rights. It clearly believes that it can get away with stalling negotiations with workers who don’t have the same bargaining rights as classified workers. It is also trying to play off librarians against professional staff by offering different vacation rates.

As usual, management cries poverty as a reason not to meet the workers’ demands. Yet, as one speaker noted, “UW assets have risen by 33% since the pandemic started, by well over $600 million. The UW president makes a million dollars a year! The chief financial officer makes $1.4 million.” The workers are clearly not buying the excuse of poverty.

SEIU Local 925 has organized over 6000 mostly classified UW employees. The union has expanded coverage recently, including social workers and dieticians. It has organized the supervisors of the classified staff that work in the libraries. Another union, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) has organized non-supervisory classified staff in the library system.

Both unions have no-strike clauses in their contracts. This puts limitations on their legal right to call out classified workers in support of the librarians and professional workers. Their contracts give individual workers the right to honor picket lines but only for their own safety. The classified workers inside the libraries were informed of this right, but the unions did not organize classified staff to honor the picket line. This created the awkward situation of SEIU members striking and picketing while other members stayed at work behind the picket lines.

No-strike clauses are very common in union contracts. This is an issue that the labor movement needs to address! In this case, the librarians and professional staff would have made a much bigger impact if they pulled out all the union workers and shut the libraries down. As one librarian put it, “Why didn’t they call out the classified staff?”

The strike was energetic and active all day. The strikers gathered in front of the main library before 9 a.m. and picketed and rallied until after 4 p.m. They distributed hundreds of leaflets to students and other UW staff. Many students and other workers joined the rally at noon, which had over 200 workers and supporters. Support from people passing by the rally seemed nearly universal. Strikers marched to several of the libraries on campus and picketed there. After the noon rally they submitted a petition in support of the strike to the office president, Ana Marie Cauce.

At noon, several supporting unions and student groups gave solidarity greetings: SEIU 925, WFSE, UAW 4121 (grad students and post docs), the Washington State and King County Labor Councils, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Other unions there include Office and Professional Workers and IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), The Labor Chorus led people in singing, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Solidarity Forever.”

The strikers are fed up and determined. They demanded a decent contract and chanted, “If we don’t get it, SHUT IT DOWN!”

This strike is one more sign of the broadening of the labor movement. Over 70% of poll respondents support unions—the highest support in decades. Different categories of workers are joining the movement. This includes relatively low-paid baristas at Starbucks and other coffee shops and warehouse workers at Amazon. As this strike shows, it also includes professional workers. In previous years, many workers who had professional positions didn’t see themselves as workers and were not as likely to unionize. This has changed, as more professionals work for large institutions rather than for themselves. With the onset of budget cuts going back to the 1970s, and especially since the “Great Recession” of 2008-9, even professional workers are under attack. More and more, they see the need to organize.

Professional workers are part of the working class and deserve solidarity from other workers. Their pay and conditions impact the pay and conditions of all workers. Everyone should support these workers! The union is asking everyone to sign their petition in solidarity: For more information and to donate funds, see:

Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.

Photo: Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times

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