‘Librarians As Trade Unionists’ by Frank and Rachel Anderson from Labor Age. Vol. 11 No. 11. December, 1922.

First spokesperson for the union Maude Malone, her sister Marcella was president. Later Maude would be employed as the Daily Worker’s librarian.

The first labor union for public librarians was The Library Employees’ Union of Greater New York was chartered as A.F. of L. local 15590 on May 15, 1917. The union was first led by militant Irish-American sisters Maud and Marcella Malone, suffragettes and socialists. Here, two members look back at the previous five years and the issues raised in early organizing of librarians for Labor Age.

‘Librarians As Trade Unionists’ by Frank and Rachel Anderson from Labor Age. Vol. 11 No. 11. December, 1922.

PUT the blame on that mischievous old boy, High Cost of Living. He caused the librarians to organize their first local union in New York City in May, 1917.

Up to that time the profession had been thought too genteel and “‘intellectual’’ to be mixed up in the “sordid”’ fight for wages, hours and better conditions. ‘“Trade unionism,”, even now, is a subject more often looked up for a reader by librarians than seriously considered for themselves.

Maud Malone.

But the sharp upward thrust of prices from 1914 to 1917 was more than even the patient librarian could bear. Prices in New York City increased nearly 50 per cent from December, 1914 to December, 1917——44.68 per cent, to be exact. By December, 1919, they had gone to over double 1914 figures. On the other hand, the librarian’s salary moved upward very slowly… Its movement was so slight, indeed, as to be nothing when compared with wage raises. Library boards, wound round with “red tape’’ and other difficulties, would not or could not grant salary increases to meet the rising prices.

No Living Wage

To live below a health and decency standard or to go to other fields were the hard alternatives put up to library workers. You can see this vividly from the following figures: In August and September, 1919, the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics gave the budget necessary for a single woman, “at a level of health and decency’’, at $1,140.42. In November of that year the beginning salary of grade 1 library assistants, over 18, with a six months apprenticeship in the New York system was $660. Just $480 below this minimum decent wage found necessary by the Bureau of Labor Statistics!

In desperation hundreds left the Public Library service for better paying business, research and government positions. In 1919, 116 resignations from the New York Circulation Department staff of 442 were received. There were some who saw another way out. They stayed on the job and organized the Library Employees’ Union of Greater New York.

“We will not be driven out of our profession,” they resolved.

Publicity was their first weapon. Through it, they brought pressure to bear upon the Library Board and the Director of the Library, to do something real for better wages. Favoritism was also charged in the distribution of increases granted by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment—the city granted blanket increases which tended to go to the higher salaried executives rather than the rank and file.

The system of employment, promotion and discharge of library workers was exposed as autocratic. The Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library, you must understand (and of most of the libraries of the country), is responsible in no way to the electorate. They are what is known as “self-perpetuating boards” — that is, when one of their members drops out the others choose his successor. These boards are made up of the representatives of the richest families and the biggest interests. They have all too little sympathy with people who work. The Board of the New York Library, for example is composed of 20 men connected with big corporations, one Bishop and one Judge. It is they who appoint the Director of the Library. He can hire and fire his assistants at will. As a rule, this Director—dependent for his own job — on Big Business—thinks of his employees just as any Big-Business man does.

New York Public Library.

The Coming of the Union

The coming of the union gave new hope to New York library workers. A year after its formation a local was started in Boston. In the past, the only organization for the profession had been a technical one—the American Library Association, founded in 1876. In it executives and the library Rank and File—executives and workers—worked together to standardize methods of taking care of books and making the printed word serve the public. But like the teachers’ technical society, the National Education Association, the Library Association gave little time and effort to such questions as the cost of living, salaries, promotions, etc.

The union demanded that librarians might see just how they are rated, the results of their examination papers and all other records which were formerly kept secret. Through the efforts of the union the City Federation of Women’s Clubs passed a resolution demanding. That the Board of Trustees do not dismiss librarians without notice and without charges or trial. Members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (the city’s representatives) were also persuaded to attend meetings of the Library Board of Trustees. Formerly, they knew of conditions only as reported to them by the Director.

The American Federation of Labor has backed the union in its fight. The 1920 convention of the A.F. of L., for example, passed a resolution which gave nation-wide publicity to the situation facing library workers. As a result, the American Library Association invited a representative of the union to speak before the A. L. A. convention that year. The union killed the pension bills for library workers, introduced in the state legislatures of 1921. It did this because these bills placed the whole control of the pensions in the hands of the Board of Trustees. The union wants civil service. It does not wish to consent to any pension for librarians, until this is administered under civil service rules.

Can Librarians Be Organized?

These good things have been won by a very small group. The two library local unions have never claimed over a few hundred members. The 1920 Census of Occupations gives a total of 15,297 librarians in the country. The great difference between this total and the small number in the unions raises the question, ‘‘Can librarians be organized?’’ .

This is not easy to answer. There are seven times as many women in the profession as men. Until the rise of the garment workers’ unions, women were regarded as hard to organize. They made poor trade unionists. But the needle trades have shown that there is as good stuff among them for union purposes as among men. In the library unions it is the women who have borne the brunt of the battle. There are many difficulties of organization, however, that must be frankly faced.

Missionaries of the Book

The first difficulty is a matter of tradition. It is a virtue exaggerated into a vice. Pioneer librarians were “missionaries of the book.” They were willing to work for almost nothing to bring books and people together. These missionaries have resented the mention of financial incentives and organization to protect their interests. So directors of libraries and library boards have frowned on unions and kept on expecting librarians to live on starvation wages. If these servants of the public remain willing to die for an ideal, there are plenty of hard-headed businessmen on library boards holding open opportunities for martyrdom.

A “Parasitic Profession’’

Besides the missionary spirit, another difficulty is this: To a certain extent the business of making books and magazines available to the public is a “parasitic profession’. It draws upon the women living at home, supported largely by their men folk in other professions or business.

The calling has been crowded with those romantic folks who “love books.” These regard the occupation as “genteel,” coming as they do from middle-class families proud of a tradition of non-manual work. Many women take up librarianship as a stop-gap job between girlhood and wifehood. Carrol Kennicott (the ‘heroine of ‘‘Main Street’’) was a children’s librarian until she met the doctor. If the work gives younger women pin money—something for clothes, entertainment and partial self-support —what more can be asked of it? It is “nice clean work’, gives opportunity to meet folks, and preserves caste. Only when even those who enter the profession as an avocation realize that they owe a duty to themselves and their fellow-workers, will there be a real demand for organization and a minimum living wage.

Will Professional Workers Be Lost?

“But”, someone may say, ‘“‘professional workers being so small in numbers will become lost. in the labor movement.”

Some seem afraid that Labor will try to direct these professional forces. But if the professional groups will become aware of what their work really means and will insist on self-fulfillment—and at least the same degrees of self-direction as other groups—then no power on earth can thwart them or bury them. Certainly, the business groups have not been over-anxious to help the professional workers find themselves!

The librarians must drop their ‘doing good to others” attitude. They should meet working men and women face to face, not looking up to them or down upon them. They have much to give to, and much to receive from the American labor movement.

Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v11n11-dec-1922-LA-.pdf

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