Wendy Rigby and Tori Patrick work in circulation at the Daniel Boone Regional Library (DBRL) in Columbia, Missouri. They are members of Daniel Boone Regional Library Workers United, affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 61; you can sign their letter of support here. Emilie Shireman reached out to Rigby and Patrick to learn more about their unionization efforts.
What is the Daniel Boone Regional Library and what’s going on there?
The Daniel Boone Regional Library is a network of 4 libraries in Boone and Callaway counties in Mid-Missouri. The Columbia branch where we work is the biggest. The Columbia branch is crucial for a lot of the smaller, regional libraries’ operations: administrative offices, collections, tech services, and in-house technical operations are all housed in Columbia. Part of what started the conversation about organizing is how disconnected the branches feel from one another. Before organizing, there was little interaction and communication between the employees at the branches and we really only saw each other once a year.
In May 2020 the libraries re-opened after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the branches located in southern Boone and Callaway county, the return to services was completely different from Columbia’s. The branches didn’t get the same amount of support in enforcing the mask requirements and providing masks and plexiglass, and the processes for curbside services and handling fluctuation in staffing was completely different.
The libraries are a central hub for a lot of things in the community and function as more than just a library: meeting and study rooms for rent, use of computers and printers, and we operate as a warming and cooling center for the homeless. The library is essentially a community center. In our organizing conversations we talk a lot about how we can serve the public, and how to keep our services available and open while also keeping ourselves safe.
What were the working conditions at DBRL that needed changing?
Organizing a union came up in conversation because it’s the best way to advocate for ourselves and for our patrons. In making decisions now, the focus is on what the board wants and not on what the reality of the day-to-day situation is for the workers.
Primarily what people are looking for above anything else is a voice and some kind of input on what the decisions are that affect our work. In our initial conversations, the typical things came up: pay, safety, benefits, health insurance. We also had conversations about equity of access, how parts of the buildings are hard to access by patrons and staff with disabilities. It came to a head with the COVID precautions the administration decided we were taking. No one involved staff or asked for staff opinions, it just came top-down from administration and managers. That built frustration. We always have had issues with communication and transparency, the way the library is structured now is very much an autocracy. We’re told what to do and expected to do it and not allowed to have opinions. Individual managers are sometimes much better and can be understanding, but at the end of the day they have to answer to the administration as well.
Since the new executive director came in at Daniel Boone Regional Library, there have been lots of changes. She’s very focused on fiscal matters, and she’s brought in new ways the library can make money. Unfortunately, that meant changing our benefits. One small thing they cut was paying for staff lunches on Saturdays, something that was in place for years. It was a nice thing about working on Saturdays that you could get a free lunch, and they took it away under the guise of fairness to workers that work during the week who don’t get free lunches.
The new executive director also totally overhauled the PTO system, which had a really negative effect on people who hadn’t been there very long. We went from a system where sick and vacation days were separate and all new employees started with a bank of both days, to a system where days are “earned”. Because of this, a pregnant colleague lost PTO due to the new system and didn’t have the time at home with her new baby that she had planned on.
What was the hardest thing about getting your coworkers on board with the union?
When we started organizing, the conversations were surprisingly easy and support was very quick to build. Yeah, there were some nerves and what-ifs, but support took off really quick and people were excited. Some people are worried about public exposure and press interviews, but that wasn’t so hard to overcome because peoples’ support can be as private as they want it to be, you don’t have to tell anyone how you’re going to vote.
We went into a lot of conversations nervous about what the reaction would be only to find that coworkers were enthusiastic, saying they had been waiting for us to organize a union! A really good side effect of organizing is that the sense of camaraderie and solidarity has made going to work even better. Now we know our coworkers are with us and have our backs.
Does socialism ever come up in your organizing conversations?
Not explicitly. There are DSA members who work at the library, and the principles of socialism have been part of the organizing drive since the beginning. We never really expressed any of those explicitly because we worried it might scare people off. Politics is involved though, one of our most vocal anti-union coworkers is very conservative and we have spirited debates with them about the union.
What’s the biggest obstacle right now in getting your union recognized?
We asked for voluntary recognition at a meeting of the library board of directors on February 4th. At that meeting they said no, claimed that we didn’t have a majority of the workers in support of the union, and that they would recognize the union if we were to get that majority. Which was actually not true, we did have majority support at the time of the meeting. The board could have been referring to the 50 signatures we had on the letter of intent, but that’s not the complete picture. This spread of misinformation was something that we then had to deal with.
What do you take from their hesitancy to recognize the union?
It could be as simple as the fact that the union is an entirely new thing that hasn’t been done at this library before and they don’t know what the process is, so they’re against it on that account. We weren’t surprised, though. It would’ve been amazing to get voluntary recognition at that meeting but we already had a plan for what we would do next. AFSCME has been supporting and informing us and that has helped us manage our expectations in those situations. They prepared us by letting us know how rare it is to get recognition on the first request so we weren’t disheartened. The board is making it a harder journey than it has to be and setting up an adversarial relationship that doesn’t have to exist.
How can DSA members help DBRL Workers United?
We’re continuing our campaign, still meeting with coworkers and having conversations. We have pretty active social media, please follow and share posts, especially for people outside Missouri. Our letter of community support already has 600+ signatures, we encourage people to sign if they support the union drive. More signatories on the letter carries a lot of weight not just because it shows the administration how much support we have but it also allows us to connect with those supporters and start to work together on how to show solidarity with one another.