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Union Organizing in the Long Shadow of the Gilded Age

THE MARBLE STAIRS in the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh are worn from use near the handrails, so that as you ascend, your feet land in the curved depressions created by the collective weight of over one hundred years of patrons. When looking up from the bottom of a flight, the effect is slightly dizzying, the steps appearing like a stack of little waves. At the top, you enter a columned hall, where the main circulation desk is stationed, front and center, as it tends to be in Carnegie-built libraries. Today, it’s staffed by a single library worker, and there is a short line of people waiting to talk to her. It’s a bright winter day, and sun streams through the building’s domed windows, filling the library with light, as they were designed by Andrew Carnegie’s own specifications to do.

It is the middle of December 2021, and last week, on the seventh, approximately three hundred workers at this library and at eighteen other Carnegie branches across Pittsburgh reached a tentative agreement on their first union contract. The workers won the right to bargain this agreement after a majority of them voted to join the United Steelworkers, an offshoot of a union that, 130 years earlier, was nearly crushed by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, chairman and chief executive of Carnegie Steel. The United Steelworkers now reaches far beyond the dwindling American steel industry and welcomes most of its new members from sectors like higher ed, health care, tech, and cultural institutions.

Carnegie spent a good chunk of his steel fortune gifting libraries like this one to communities across the United States and abroad. The bright, vaulted building in Pittsburgh, as well as the Carnegie museums and wide-open urban greenspaces like Frick Park (bequeathed by Henry Clay himself), were a factor in why my family recently chose to move here. They are part of what makes Pittsburgh such a livable city, or at least the kind of place we were hoping to live. Today, I’m at the library early for a union meeting—I’m an organizer, though not for the Steelworkers: I work for Workers United, an offshoot of the ILGWU, most recently known for its association with the uprising of Starbucks workers. I’ve settled in at a table in a high-ceilinged reading room, and I’m listening to a recording of Carnegie himself reading from his essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” which was published in the June 1889 issue of North American Review (originally just titled “Wealth”).

Carnegie’s voice is pompous and theatrical, as if he is calling out to a large audience from a great distance. The internet is spotty, so the track cuts in and out, and I go to the front desk to ask if there is a better place to sit for the sake of reception. The library worker is helping an elderly patron, and perhaps because they are both masked, or perhaps because he is also armored with layers of outerwear including a thick scarf wrapped around a coat hood, they are having a hard time communicating. She leans over the desk and carefully explains how to log on to the public computers and then tells the patron she’ll be over shortly to help him set up an email account.

This exchange is familiar to me—I’m married to a librarian who has worked in “public interfacing roles” at four different libraries across the country. I know that librarians have, by hook and crook, picked up the frayed threads of the fabric of this country’s safety net and are doing their best to weave it back together with the few and forever decreasing resources at their disposal. Library collections have shifted from books and other media to include things humans need to navigate the modern world: cell phones, calling cards, wifi hotspots, clothing for job interviews, and bicycles to get them there on time, as well as items needed for basic survival: winter coats, canned foods, kitchen tools, a warm and safe place to sit. Librarians are trained in engaging people who have any number of neuro- and emotional divergences, disabilities, and disorders. They are often community leaders in programming around literacy, parenting, citizenship, and summer or after-school education. They are first points of contact for unsheltered members of the communities they serve. In some places, librarians are relied upon to staff Covid testing sites and to train in the emergency use of Narcan.

There is about a 40 percent chance the person staffing this desk is a part-time worker. If so, she likely has no paid time off, no set schedule, no medical benefits. (Thankfully, the new union agreement will go a long way toward making the job more sustainable, but not until it’s ratified by a majority of the library’s workers and then goes into effect.) There is a good chance she was among the 60 percent of staff system-wide who voted to form a union and to become a member of the United Steelworkers. She and her coworkers are part of a growing movement of arts and culture workers forming unions because the precarity of these jobs—along with the pressure and sometimes danger of being on the front line of the suffering caused by the absence of social programs in this country—has pushed them to demand stability, better pay and benefits, a voice at work. From freelancers and visual artists to museum workers and librarians, this sector, which was in part founded and sustained by Gilded Age wealth, is newly alight with organizing momentum.

I’m listening to “The Gospel of Wealth” in this space purposely; I thought it might be amusing to hear the old man blather on about charity as a form of social waste while sitting inside a shrine to his idea of the morality of wealth, where workers now perform exactly the kinds of charitable services he decried.

Read entire article at The Baffler