At the University of Chicago, we love our libraries. Our student body flocks to the Reg like moths to a hulking Brutalist flame. We boast six beautiful state-of-the-art libraries, each home to part of the 10th-largest collection in North America. A collection that big and diverse requires a lot of work to maintain. While the UChicago Library system employs many librarians and other career workers, a great deal of that work—the shelving, the circulation, the ground-level tasks that allow such a collection to run—comes from part-time student workers.
I am a part-time student library worker in Eckhart Library, and have been since early November. As a circulation desk attendant in a tiny library, I love seeing our small band of regular patrons come in at the same time every day. I love coming in on a Saturday morning and watching sunlight filter in through the ceiling windows as the day goes on, or sitting in productive silence with the students scrambling to finish problem sets, or the TAs grading problem sets of their own.
But there are many things about my job that rightfully frustrate me. I am a quarterly worker, which means that, though good performance makes it likely I will be invited back for the next quarter, I cannot ever be sure of my future employment. My schedule for this quarter has been relatively inconsistent, with no “permanent” schedule issued until this week, even though there are only four weeks left. The wage I earn often feels insufficient, and I’m often forced to prioritize taking on extra hours at work over making space in my schedule to go to TA sessions and office hours for the help I need to be a successful student. And the bureaucracy of our system is structured such that complaints from my coworkers all over campus about inaccessibility, harassment, and labor violations often go unheard or are willfully ignored.
My job is essential to the daily operation of this university, but the University’s neglect of these ongoing problems makes me, and many other student workers, feel expendable and insignificant, like our well-being is not worth consideration. Many student workers rely on their jobs for more than just pocket money or resume padding —this is rent money, textbook money, food money, and the instability inherent to a job like this is constantly felt.
Even though this is an institution populated by students, run in large part on student labor, the University has historically ignored and neglected students’ and workers’ needs. For instance, library departments have faced routine understaffing due to budget cuts and hiring freezes, with departments like Map Collection struggling without an official librarian for over a year. The student workers left in these departments are often forced to take on greater responsibilities with little training, no consideration for their time, and most importantly no raise in pay. It’s time for us to stop waiting for the University to listen to us, and instead negotiate with them on even footing as organized workers.
I believe the best course of action for student library workers—and for students all over our campus—is to work to unionize, and through collective power, claim the voice we need to start creating the university we want to attend. Over the last few weeks, I have been working with a team of like-minded students to collect cards from student library workers who are interested in a formal election on the question of forming a legally recognized union.
With the help and support of the Teamsters, whose Local 743 union already represents many career workers in our libraries, we have collected cards calling for an election from about 50 percent of our “bargaining unit,” a term for the workers our union will represent. On Sunday, we officially filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to have a legally recognized election. And over the next month, we will be working to reach out to student workers on this campus, including those opposed to unionization, to make sure everyone is heard and on the same page as we move forward with the election.
Forming a union among a group of students like part-time library workers is the first step toward developing a University that is accountable and responsive to all students. Student workers on this campus are real workers and deserve the same rights and respect from our employer as all workers do.
Katie McPolin is a second-year in the College majoring in interdisciplinary studies in the Humanities.