THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Overdue Notice

Labor Grievances in Brown University’s Changing Libraries

by Erin West & Will Tavlin

Illustration by Celeste Matsui

published March 4, 2016


In February 2016, Brown University completed its full scale renovations of the John D. Rockefeller Library’s ground floor. A new lobby features glass walls, pleated leather couches, and a space-age circulation desk. What was once the periodicals room has been gutted and replaced with the Sidney E. Frank Digital Studio—a large room akin to an Apple Store. Flat screen TVs, industrial grade extension cables hanging from the ceiling, and a 3D printer adorn the space that, according to the library’s website, is intended to be “a place where faculty and students from all the disciplines are actively encouraged to mingle, share their experiences, and learn through a series of workshops and project showcases.” Sleek, minimal, and cutting edge, Brown’s lavish central humanities library is a symbol of digital innovation and is picture-perfect for the cover of a college pamphlet.

Brown’s libraries are in a starkly different position than the majority of public libraries nationally—which have been struggling for years. Accelerated by the 2008 recession, budget cuts, digitization, and drops in public usage have resulted in nearly a quarter of US states slashing their library funding by over 10 percent. In 2009, here in Providence, budget constraints forced Providence Public Libraries to consider closing five branch libraries until a private nonprofit organization, the Providence Community Library, stepped in and took control. Jennifer Romans, an administrator at Providence’s Smith Hill Public Library, is forced to spend much of her time scraping together grant funding to cover the costs of basic and critical services, such as supplying residents with Providence’s annual summer reading list, building an elevator to comply with American Disability Act standards, and even repairing the building’s roof. Because of its tight budget, the Smith Hill library is severely understaffed with only three full time employees. “There are two days each week where just to be able to take our lunch break, to get coverage, we have to get someone to come over from another library,” Romans tells the Independent. At Smith Hill, funding cuts have hit workers the hardest.

Like Romans, Brown University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi—overseer of the university’s five libraries—also spends much of her time looking for outside funding. Access to wealthy donors and alumni has allowed Hemmasi to undertake expensive projects like the new lobby and digital studio. These renovations, entirely funded by donors, make Brown unique; the $8 million Brown allocated for its libraries’ purchasing and staffing costs during the fiscal year 2014-15 makes the university’s library system the most extensive and well-funded in Rhode Island. However, even without the same budget constraints as Smith Hill, Brown is no less of a pressured environment for its workers. The influx of funding for renovations has ushered in a slew of unique challenges for Brown’s library staff—especially for unionized workers. 

 

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Traditionally, unionized workers at Brown’s libraries have occupied positions such as shelvers, bibliographers, and circulation desk workers. These jobs sometimes require a Masters of Library Sciences (MLS) degree, but most are attainable with a high school diploma or G.E.D. In the past few years, however, Brown has transitioned from hiring for these more traditional unionized positions to filling highly specialized listings such as “Digital Humanities Scholars”—non-unionized jobs that expect advanced academic training. Ian Straughn, a self-described archaeologist and assistant professor of Anthropology at Brown, is a Joukowsky Family Middle East Studies Librarian and specializes in digital research. “It used to be everyone had a library degree,” Straughn told the Indy in his spacious office on the first floor of the Rockefeller Library, “of the three of us in this office, not one of us has a library degree.” 

As scholarship increasingly becomes more digitized and research methods diversify, the specialized knowledge of Straughn and his counterparts is a valuable asset to an elite research institution. Nonetheless, Brown’s expansion in these positions has left little room for members of United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island (USAW), the union that represents Brown’s unionized library workers. Karen McAninch is a USAW business agent and heads the union’s bargaining team. She told the Indy that “[Brown’s] library has historically and continues to define new positions as non-union, whether because they are ‘professional’ or ‘exempt’, including but not exclusively positions requiring master’s in library science.” The union is concerned that Brown’s shifting hiring landscape is working to erode their membership and, in turn, their bargaining unit. In 2014, amidst contract negotiations between USAW and the library, the union noted in a letter sent to Brown faculty that, since 2007, the number of library union positions has declined by nearly one third. As of December 2014, only 48 percent of Brown library workers were unionized, down 6 percent since 2007. This, coupled with a drop in total library positions available from 164 in 2007 to 127 in 2014, doesn’t bode well for unionized labor’s future at Brown. Currently, the Brown Library is choosing to permanently fill only 1.75 out of five recently vacated library union positions, after years of cutting other positions by attrition (the .75 indicating that the position was filled for only ¾ of the year). An anonymous Rockefeller Library staffer told the Indy that the university announced it is cutting daytime security positions because of alleged “budget constraints.” This staffer, standing behind the sleek plexiglass circulation desk said this statement from the university was “hard to swallow.”

From Brown’s perspective, the shift in hiring is justified. During the 2014 contract negotiations between Brown and USAW, Marisa Quinn, former Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relations, told the Brown Daily Herald, “Staffing decisions must take into account significant changes in the nature of work in the library, the increased use of online materials, and other technological innovations that serve library users.” But why this means unionized library workers must be left out of these changes is unclear. In their 2014 contract negotiations, the union bargained strongly for access to training that would allow them to fill new positions with an emphasis on digital scholarship. Brown has thus far made no significant efforts to provide these resources.

Within the past year, Brown has begun replacing unionized labor in more systematic ways. In March 2015, the university launched major renovations for its Sciences Library. During a period of five and a half months, Brown planned to gut five floors of the library in order to clear stack space for a Social Sciences Research Lab, a Language Resource Center, as well as collaborative work spaces. To complete these renovations, the university outsourced labor to two temporary work agencies: W.B. Meyer and Gentry. In total, they brought in eleven workers, or “Limited Duration Employees,” to remove books from the Science Library, reshelve texts, and transport materials to Brown’s library Annex. According to USAW, this was work that should have been available to its workers first and foremost—a request that was denied by the university. The union specifically took issue with the loss of potential overtime pay, which, for Brown, would have been more costly than temp wages.

In the middle of the Sciences Library renovations, the university proceeded to violate the union’s labor contract. On June 12, 2015, USAW filed a grievance against Brown University for violating three Limited Duration Employee (LDE) contracts. According to the union’s 2014 agreement, a temporary worker could only be brought in for a period of up to 90 days. Brown violated the 90-day limit and worked three of the Sciences Library temporary workers for over five months. In response to the grievance, the university conceded 135 hours of total overtime to union members who were restricted from work given to W.B. Meyer employees, and issued a payment of $983.75 to USAW as compensation for their lost work.

Mark Baumer is a librarian at the Sciences Library and an active member of the union. His most serious grievance with Brown University is not necessarily the extra weeks that the temp workers stayed on, but rather with Brown’s tendency to leave staffers out of decision-making structures entirely. “This was coming from the provost, down to the library administration, getting pushed down on the workers and at no point in any of that did the library administration or university say, how did this affect the workers?” Baumer tells the Indy. “The union had to step up and go against the whole structure.”

The temporary workers’ contract violation isn’t the first major grievance library workers have filed with the university. A long-standing history exists between the union’s rights to fair treatment and the administration’s attempts at superseding them. In the past decade alone, USAW has renegotiated three separate contracts with the university—each more contentious than the last. Tense negotiations in 2010 kicked off when the administration demanded that library workers pay more than double their current health care contribution. After temporarily extending their contract three times, solidarity marches on Brown’s Main Green and in University Hall, and a threatened strike from the union, negotiations were finally settled when the university agreed to implement the contributions hike incrementally over the next four years. The university also agreed to pair those health care increases with yearly wage increases of 1.5-2 percent. When their contract ended in 2014, the union made stronger demands: lower health insurance contributions coupled with wage increases, as well as access to training that would allow unionized workers to fill specialized positions. Again, the union’s contract, which expired September 30, 2014, was extended well into December as negotiations stalled. After another series of demonstrations—one of which gathered over 100 protestors outside of the Rockefeller Library on its 50th Anniversary Ceremony—the negotiations ended with an agreement to invest in more training for library workers.

Mark Baumer and other library workers felt largely optimistic after the 2014 negotiations. One stipulation in the new contract established a labor management committee that would serve to facilitate better communication between labor and administration; it was the answer to many unionized workers’ concerns of being left out of the library’s decision-making procedures. Baumer is on the labor management committee, but according to him the meetings are essentially meaningless. “[There’s] no one from upper levels of management” says Baumer. The administrators have instead opted to send a human resources representative to every meeting so far. “How are you supposed to have a conversation about the direction of the library when the people making the decisions about the direction of the library aren’t there to have the discussion?”

Speaking to the Indy, Harriette Hemmasi emphasized the number of parties consulted during projects like the lobby renovations: architects, an administrative space planning committee, and the university provost. Mentioning that she had spoken with staff during this process, Hemmasi claimed there were no substantial disputes. One Rockefeller Library staffer, however, told the Indy that she was “horrified” when she saw the blueprints for the new circulation desk. Another staffer said that no one who actually works the circulation desk was asked for feedback; privately, many expressed concerns that the new desk—at half the length of the old one—would negatively affect their ability to organize their materials. 

Daniel O’Mahony, Director of Library Planning and Assessment, works with Hemmasi at the helm of library renovations. He explained that many of the physical changes at the Rock are being decided based on a statistical model; stacks are cleared based on the rate at which books are circulated; the administration is monitoring how many people use a room, and when, so that they can decide what can stay. In many ways, data models are useful to the library because they provide a bird’s eye view as to how materials and spaces get used. “There’s a lot of money being spent on these things so it helps to ground that in some semblance of reality,” O’Mahony told the Indy. But in terms of reaching out for further feedback, data is about as far as the administration tends to go. “Just for the sake of conversation,” says O’Mahony, “How else would we do it?”

O’Mahony told the Indy that the administration has reached out to faculty and students and insisted “we are addressing the varied expectations of our patrons better than ever before.” O’Mahony did say he is aware of worker concerns, but understood their worries as akin to: “Will my office have the same view? Will I have the same amount of space as the person over there?” However, Baumer and others library staffers aren’t necessarily worried about their office space. They’re worried about their jobs and the dwindling bargaining unit’s ability to stand up against unfair employment contracts. There is a glaring lapse in the way Brown’s administration evaluates library space; they are not adequately addressing the needs of those most directly affected by changes—the staff.

 

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What Baumer has gotten out of all his dealings with the university, “reaffirms [that] we need a union, we need workers to be able to stand up for themselves because otherwise, the way the university is structured they will just keep forcing things through.” The challenge that Baumer, the union, and other workers have faced during this process is its gradual advancement through seemingly small, hidden changes. “It’s tough for the average person to wrap their head around, but that’s where the university or any administration wins, is when this is too difficult for anyone to pay attention to or follow along and the whole time workers rights are diminishing. People can say, oh it’s not that bad.” 

For the people that spend their entire days and weeks at the libraries, it is that bad. Ian Straughn told the Indy that “the changing nature of spaces is also part of the changing nature of the different skill sets of those who work in the library.” But the cost at which these changes occur is steep. Many workers have been employed by the library longer than administrators, and now their jobs appear less secure. Hidden behind changes to the library’s physical space are also changes with regards to the people that keep that space running.

On February 26, Brown celebrated the opening of the Digital Studio with a presentation and a speech by newly appointed Digital Scholarship Services Manager James Murdock. With library administrators in attendance, Murdock announced, “the space here is really for the community.” This is not the first time Brown has used the language of community with regards to changes at its libraries; Elizabeth Huidekoper—former Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration—opened her op-ed in the Herald amidst the 2014 negotiations: “The Brown community of students, faculty members and staff members is unique in its commitment to advancing fair, supportive and just treatment for all.” But the university is consistently unclear about how the union fits into the community when their treatment of the union is neither ‘fair’ nor ‘supportive’: loss of additional working hours and higher-level positions, unconsulted adjustments to their space, blatant violations of their contracts. And it isn’t changing anytime soon. Later this Spring, the Rockefeller Library’s second floor computer cluster will be gutted and replaced with a new graduate student space. Equipped with a kitchen, common areas, and a digital presentation room, the space will likely create new staffing positions too. But whether that work will go to the union, the administration has declined to say.


ERIN WEST B’18 and WILL TAVLIN B’17 collaborated on this piece in the Rockefeller Library’s Sidney E. Frank Digital Studio.