Workers at another public library in Ohio vote to unionize
Courtesy of Moth Meuser

PICKERINGTON, Ohio—Staff at the Pickerington Public Library are organizing to form a union.

If successful, they would become the third library system in central Ohio to unionize through the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT). Another group of workers, at the Fairfield County Library, are organized through the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

On August 10, the Pickerington Public Library staff formally asked the library board of trustees to voluntarily recognize their union. Signed union cards were presented to management as well as the State Employee Relations Board. At least 73% of staff in the library system, spanning two locations, had signed cards indicating their support for the unionization effort.

By August 23, library staff had received word from the Board of Trustees that there would be no voluntary recognition of the union. The unionization drive will now go to a mail-in-vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

“We are not trying to be adversarial,” said Moth Meuser, teen librarian at Pickerington Public Library. “We just would like to have more input on the things that affect us day to day.”

Libraries represent a critical hub in the diminishing network of social services available to communities across the country. According to Meuser, the Pickerington Library provides a variety of programming to support the local school system, including test preparation, reading events, homework help, hosting field trips, and other forms of outreach. Nevertheless, libraries often feel the pressure to demonstrate their continued relevance in the age of ubiquitous internet access and ever-present austerity threats from local governments.

Perhaps most importantly the Pickerington Public Library, like many public libraries, serves as a “third space”—a safe place other than home, school, or work that anyone can use. Many parents utilize the Pickerington libraries as de facto after-school care, a role facilitated by the close proximity of the two libraries to the public schools.

Courtesy of Moth Meuser

This is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. Pickerington’s public libraries are frequently overcrowded during the after-school hours. “We love the engagement that is possible from having so many students in the library in the afternoon”, Meuser said. “But sometimes, when we’re short-staffed and scrambling to keep up with day-to-day tasks, we can’t give our all to these students. That takes away from the educational mission of the library.”

Librarians across the country have often taken on new roles traditionally associated with social workers and first responders. As other public services face chronic underfunding, libraries may become a safe harbor for the unhoused or those seeking refuge from abusive and unsafe living conditions. In some cities, librarians are trained in CPR and the use of naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdose, due to the frequency of health crises occurring within the library.

Yet librarians themselves often struggle. Many long-time library staff in Pickerington rely on partners with other income for financial support. There is no paid parental leave for staff, and the library does not have a distinct, full-time human resources representative. About two-thirds of the staff at the Pickerington Public Library system are part-time workers and are considered ineligible for healthcare or other benefits under the current terms of employment.

Many of these part-time workers form the core support for the unionization effort, according to Meuser. There are early signs that the eligibility of these part-time workers for union membership may be contested by the library’s Board of Trustees.

Staff at the library were inspired by the successful unionization of nearby Worthington Public Library. “When brainstorming ways to serve the public, we were often impressed by many of Worthington’s initiatives and resources,” said Meuser, “so it was natural that we would follow their lead in forming a union.”

Like the Worthington Library, Pickerington Public library is organizing under the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), a member organization within the AFL-CIO.

“Librarians are very autonomous workers in general. We are all self-directed. We know how to do research. We are not uninformed about what’s going on,” Meuser said.

Unionization represents a guaranteed seat at the table for library staff when it comes to decisions about the direction and management of the library. It is also a vehicle for pursuing reasonable accommodations and livable wages.

“When our needs are met, we are much better able to serve our community,” said Meuser.

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David Hill
David Hill

David Hill is a member of the Mike Gold Writer’s Collective. He follows labor, LGBTQ rights, policing, and other issues. He is a member of the National Writers Union and Freelance Solidarity Project.