what i learned at the cupe library workers conference

What did I learn at the CUPE Ontario Library Conference?

Technically, nothing. If learning means encountering something new, then no, this was not a learning experience.

But learning must also mean living with knowledge, absorbing it, seeing your theoretical knowledge translated into action. Understanding new configurations of that knowledge. Digesting it, assimilating it into our sense of ourselves.

In that sense, I'm learning this union stuff every day.

So here's what I "learned". (I learned that people are still overusing air quotes!)

All libraries everywhere have the same problems. Staffing levels are too low. Full-time jobs are disappearing. Positions are being deskilled. Work is increasingly precarious. It has been this way at libraries for a long time, but is now at a point where library systems are being destroyed. The ones that float do so at the peril of dedicated workers who are carrying burdens far too large.

Here's what else I "learned".

All unions everywhere face the same challenges. It's difficult to engage membership. There is anti-union sentiment even among union members. The same few activists do all the work. Members blame the union for conditions that rightly belong to the employer.

It's not a pretty picture.

And yet... I have so much hope. I have so much joy, and pride, and optimism.

I learned how some motivated organizers are successfully activating their memberships.

I learned how organizers harness anger and fear into positive action.

I learned about successful campaigns in Peterborough, Oshawa, Toronto, Brantford, and other Ontario communities.

I learned how union workplaces protect communities from the worst of the austerity agenda.

I learned how library unions struggle within larger locals of municipal employees who may not understand or value the contributions of library workers.

I learned how some library workers' unions don't include librarians. How full-time staff doesn't always support and value part-time staff. How library workers forge links with firefighters, transit workers, teachers, and custodians. How union-endorsed municipal councillors are fighting for good jobs in their communities.

I learned how some locals gave in to concessions and how membership - and their unions - suffered. How some locals fought off concessions and waged successful strikes.

Maybe I knew most of this already. But meeting other library unionists who are living it was exciting and inspiring. Meeting - brainstorming, sharing ideas, laughing, complaining, eating and drinking, communing - was brilliant.

And hey, guess what? I was elected to the library committee of CUPE Ontario, an interim member until elections next year. I am very proud to be recognized as someone worthy of this position.

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