Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Life as a Public Worker in Wisconsin

For 18 months of my life I was a public worker in Wisconsin. I was a Circulation Assistant 1 at Milwaukee Public Library’s Central Library. If I had kept that job my life would be much different. I’d be earning, even without my library degree, much more than I am now and I’d be fully vested in a very nice pension plan. If I had gotten my degree while working there, the city would have paid for it, and I wouldn’t still be shelling out monthly to pay for student loans. The Christmas I worked there was wonderful—we were able to afford to give Usinger sausage gift boxes to our parents and siblings. Something I’ve never been in a position to do since. Loved the union wage. Loved the benefits. Loved the library. Hated the union.

I hated that money out of each of my paychecks, only about, I think, $16, went to the union. Now when you are earning so much more than a non-union library job with all the perks and benefits, four hundred some odd dollars a year is a small price to pay. I understood that I benefited from their collective bargaining and I was OK with that money being taken, but I didn’t like that my money was going to support political causes to which I was fundamentally morally opposed. In particular, supporting organizations and candidates who believe that women have a right to murder their own children, provided it’s done in the womb. When asked by co-workers why I didn’t join the union I stated flatly, “I don’t fiscally support the candidates I do vote for, why would I support the ones I disagree with?” But I had no choice in the money being taken.

The only recourse I had as a non-union member was to apply to get back the portion of my union dues that went to political contributions. It was claimed that it amounted to only something like $24 a year, but it’s the principle of things, so I went through the hassle of hunting down the form and having each person I needed to speak to along the way look at me like some sort of diseased moron for wanting to do such a thing. The form was cumbersome and tedious and on the form in no less than seven places was written that the union was not responsible for the form getting lost in the mail. The form then had to be mailed. No person or address was given. I could not deliver it in person. I could not send it registered mail. It had to go to a designated PO Box. If this box did not exist, or if a postal worker just kept “losing” things addressed to it, I never discovered. I moved to Fort Wayne and was not sticking around to fight. I never got my money back.

Just after I started at the library, the union contract expired and the negotiations were not going smoothly. In the end the whole thing went to arbitration. It took almost the entire time I worked there, before it was settled. Every worker got an extra $100 just for the union finally agreeing to the contract and then got a very nice check of back wages to settle the wage increase from the year before that we would have gotten all along if negotiations hadn’t taken so long. It was crazy.

Now I believe in public libraries. I think they contribute greatly to an educated free society and do more than any other institution to bridge the digital divide. I’m proud of my city for having one of the oldest public library systems in the country. I think library workers should make a livable wage and that they do our city and the public a great service. But even with a large cut in pay I was very glad to get back to private academia, because it irked me that money I worked for helped pay for the union president to attend Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in Washington DC. It irked me that the union president was a co-worker who would decide on a whim to enforce or not bother with library rules and policy and was never reprimanded or corrected for such behavior. It also irked me that nobody in that place was willing to lift a finger outside of their assigned time and duties to make the library a better place to work.

I personally spent months of lunch hours relabeling one of the underground tiers of journals so I could find things faster. Everyone who went to that floor benefited from my work, but when I mentioned that I was doing this during my lunches I was generally scorned. The idea that workers would use their own initiative or worse yet, time, to improve their workplace was a foreign concept to my union minded co-workers. So was the idea of doing tasks as a team and completing them efficiently. One time I was assigned to spend two hours on a shifting project that involved moving two columns (14 shelves) of government documents from one range of shelves to a range that was about ten feet away. My supervisor looked at me like I was crazy when I requested working with a co-worker and using a cart, but finally agreed. We got them all shifted within an hour. My supervisor was amazed because she figured that task would take at least another week to complete. Of course if I had been taking them by handfuls instead of loading them on a cart with each person using one hand to hand the thing off, and one hand to keep the documents from flopping over while filling a cart shelf—yes it would have taken another week to finish the job.

Just before I started, the Milwaukee County Federated Library System started to use a new library automation system. It was the same system I had used at two other libraries: Libraries where I did the same sort of work for less than half the hourly rate and with lesser or no benefits. To many of my co-workers learning a new system was a hardship. Their response was not to use their collective bargaining to get us better or more training. Or even a seminar on dealing with stress in the workplace, but rather to argue for higher wages since their jobs were so much more stressful what with having to learn the new computer system. I’m glad to say the city rejected the appeal, but it made me wonder about how much of those mandated collective bargaining dues went towards this frivolous and downright silly play for more money, not to mention how much of my tax dollars the city had to spend responding to it.

All this is to say that my eighteen months over a decade ago as a city worker represented by a public employees union has colored the way I view the current budget battle in Wisconsin. I support Governor Scott Walker.


lhg edited and approved