Employees of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library system have announced their intention to unionize, citing better pay, benefits for all, and greater employee input into working conditions as their chief motivations. Seeking voluntary recognition from Pratt leadership, Pratt Workers United hopes to join AFSCME Council 67, where workers from Walters Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art are also seeking representation. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez interviews Pratt Workers United organizers Marti Dirscheri and Antoinette Wilson on the unionization campaign.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximilian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News Network is a nonprofit, viewer-supported network, so if you want to help us keep bringing you the important coverage of the issues and voices that matter, please head on over to therealnews.com/donate and become a supporter of our work. And thank you so much to all of you who are supporters already.
Baltimore is a union town. Even here, in a majority Black city that has suffered from decades of white flight, disinvestment, political corruption, and ruthless over policing, along with the extended crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, workers are standing up for themselves and advancing the wave of labor mobilization spreading throughout the country. As we’ve reported here at The Real News Network, Starbucks workers at the Mount Vernon neighborhood location became the first store to unionize in the state of Maryland earlier this year.
On top of that, workers at MOM’s Organic grocery store in the Hampden neighborhood overwhelmingly voted to unionize last month. Unionized Baltimore county library workers fought a years-long battle to get to their first contract, which they voted to ratify this year. And on top of that, nearly 140 workers across departments at the Baltimore Museum of Art successfully won their fight to form a wall-to-wall union this July. And more cultural workers in the city are banding together to demand the respect, compensation, treatment, and the say on the job that they deserve, including workers at The Walters Art Museum and workers throughout the Enoch Pratt Free Library System, which includes the central branch in downtown Baltimore and 21 other branches throughout the city.
As the great journalist and Real News contributor Rebekah Kirkman reported for BmoreArt, “On Wednesday, June 1, employees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library System announced their plan to unionize. Pratt Workers United is seeking voluntary recognition from Pratt leadership to join AFSCME’s Council 67, which is the same council that will represent workers at The Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art if their respective campaigns are successful.” This was written before the BMA officially voted to unionize.
“According to PWU’s mission statement, the employees who want to unionize are both full-time and part-time, and they work across the library’s departments, from front of house, security, custodians, and circulation staff to back end tech and maintenance, programs and outreach staff, artists, designers, and book binders, among many other roles. The union’s demands include better wages and benefits for all, clearer paths to advancement, and more staff input on working conditions. When reached for comment by email, the Enoch Pratt Free Library spokesperson sent the following statement: ‘The Pratt Library respects our employees’ right to select union representation, if that’s what they choose.'”
To talk about this vital campaign and why workers are banding together to fight for changes to the Pratt Library system that they say are desperately needed for them to be able to do their jobs effectively and safely and so that they can carry out the library’s ultimate mission to serve the public, I got to sit down in The Real News studio with Marti Dirscherl and Antoinette Wilson, two Pratt Library employees and worker organizers with Pratt Workers United.
Marti Dirscherl: My name is Marti Dirscherl. I work for Pratt Library. I started in November 2017. First, I’d like to talk about the library and what it means to me. I love the library. This was a second career for me, I worked in business and happened to get a job with the Howard County Library. And then, over the course of many years, I worked for the Baltimore County Library.
So, I was looking to enter the job market again, and I saw that Pratt had openings, and I applied. And I was happy. I grew up in Baltimore, the library was something my mother introduced to me when I was three years old, we went to the big library downtown. It was beautiful, I started to read very early, and the library is just a great place for our society, for everyone to be.
But right off the bat, when I entered my new workplace, I saw that things were really dysfunctional. People were unhappy, there was a very low morale, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. I, myself, had taken quite a pay cut to come into the branch, but I thought that after they got to know me and they got to know my education and my background, 15 years of experience, having been trained as a library associate through the Maryland Certificate Program, that I would have a chance, once I got my foot in the door, that I would be promoted, that I would be recognized, or at least have a chance to get a merit increase.
I soon discovered that does not exist at Pratt, which seemed very strange to me. Never worked anywhere where there were no incentives, for sure. I work as a library associate, they call me an LPA, I’m a part-time person. I don’t get any benefits. Fortunately, I have health insurance through my family. Many of my coworkers were out of luck during COVID. The only health time off that we get is mandated by the state or the city, so that became an immediate problem.
I work with people one-on-one all day long. I help them with finding jobs. I help them in finding books. I welcome children into the library. I do programming with children. The library is a place for everyone to come. You don’t have to spend any money when you come to the library, everything is free. And when I give them the library card, when they register, I say, you’re a card-carrying member now, and everything is free. So, that’s it in a nutshell for me.
Antoinette Wilson: Hi, my name is Antoinette Wilson, and I worked for the library for 15 years. I started 2004, part-time. I got full-time 2006, for full-time. And when I got to the library, I was very excited. I loved working at the library. When I see a lot of people retiring and growing there, and having 30 and 40 and 50 years at the library, and I say, wow, I was so excited. And I said, I’m going to be one of those people that retire from the library.
So, the library was very… I love it. I love my coworkers. But for the last couple, three or four years, it got really dysfunctional. Trust was gone. The love is gone, the compassion is gone, and we just got to do better, and support each other, and love each other, and stick together. And I think if we stick together, maybe we can do something better with this management and show our power and let them know that we can make a change.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and that, of course, is what we’re here to talk about. The effort that y’all and your coworkers are part of, to band together, to improve your workplace, to improve the library system at Pratt, which covers a number of different branches and includes the central branch here in downtown Baltimore, which is just a pinnacle of the city. It’s a beautiful building, it’s an incredible resource for so many people. And I wanted to talk about what you were just saying, Antoinette, about how over the course of recent years, I think you put it so powerfully, you said that the love is gone. And so much of what attracted you to the library has been decaying under the new leadership. And as you mentioned, that’s such a travesty, not only for workers, but for everyone who depends on the library. And so, I want to talk about that in a second. But just since I have you both here, which I’m very grateful for, I know you’re very busy, it’s the end of the week, so thank you so much for coming down here to The Real News studio to chat with us.
But yeah, I think one thing that we really want to emphasize is that this is a large library system with a lot of different people doing essential work to make that system run. And this will lead into when we talk about the unionization effort being very much a wall-to-wall effort that includes all the different employees. So, I was wondering, for folks watching and listening to this, if y’all could talk a little more about the roles that you have at the library, and give people an under-the-hood look of what your weekly work looks like, and all the different tasks that other folks are doing around you to make the library run.
Marti Dirscherl: Well, I work at a small branch. It’s basically one room, we are the smallest branch in Pigtown, but it’s an essential branch. And it’s interesting. In my opinion, it’s more important to have more resources at these smaller branches, because we are working one-on-one with our community. So many don’t have internet, so many still are not used to computers. We are walking people, holding hands, getting them emails, getting them into applications, helping with social security, disability. I have people coming in with legal problems, needing to find legal forms, they are free at the library. We don’t give advice, we just open up knowledge. We give people the place where they can find the information. And if we do need them to find advice, then we give them the information where they can find that.
It’s really funny, sometimes people try to give us money over the counter. I’m like, no, this is our job. We’re here to help you. We get up, we help people with their copying, with their scanning. We help parents find age appropriate materials for their children. I often introduce them to concept books. I often introduce them to books that help children who are struggling with reading. They come back, they report to me, they tell me that their children are doing better. It’s wonderful. We’re there because we love the citizens of Baltimore, and we see a need there for them.
Our days can be slow, our days can be extremely hectic. And we’re always problem solving. The computers don’t work all the time. There are system changes. Sometimes we’re not even told what those changes are from upper management, and we have to make workarounds, we have to figure out… Deadlines, people come in and they need things immediately. I can tell you about a lady who came in with a black eye, and I felt really great that I found the right legal document to send her out with to court. We’re hands on, and I see that with my custodial people, with the security people, we’re all there reaching out to help people.
Antoinette Wilson: Well, I do the dirty work. I go around, we have 23 branches, I believe, and I go around to all my branches and I help my coworkers with their workday. I make sure my coworkers have the supplies for their building. I’m there when they need to [inaudible], I’m there to listen to them, I’m there for compassion. So, all of them reach out to me, because they know I’m going to be honest. I’m not going to sugar coat stuff, I will tell them the truth, I’m going to tell them, I’m straight up with them. And I support them. I’m not the one who says, oh, just suspend them, or just fire them, or just let them go. Let’s figure it out. What can we do differently?
So, that’s the kind of assistant supervisor I am. I’m there to help my people, because it’s bad enough what they’re going through. A lot of my coworkers lost their sons, lost their fathers, living on life for a lifetime. We’re not making the money that we need. I got coworkers that have been there for 32 years, 42 years, and we gotta work two Saturdays to bring home $1,000. So, we are not getting paid like we are supposed to get paid. We can’t make it without overtime, they took all the overtime from us. And that’s how we made it, because the little money we make is paycheck to paycheck. And that’s ridiculous for people that have been there so long, and still have to work every Saturday to create $1,000, to bring a $1,000 home every two weeks.
So, I’m there just to make a difference, not to hurt, because they’re in enough pain. We’re in enough pain. So, that’s what I’m there for. I think that’s what my purpose is.
Marti Dirscherl: And I’d like to add, Antoinette, if I may, that this unionizing, our union, is so that we, together, have a voice. Problems are put out there and they’re treated, like Antoinette says, they’re dismissed, people are dismissed. We want actual accountability. We want a seat at the table. We want to be able to express our concerns and be respected for them. We also want to have a process in order to problem solve and find better ways. And this is all reflection for our patrons, for Baltimore City. They deserve it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And this is something that connects all of us. It’s been said many times, to the point that it’s a cliche now, but it’s true. If public libraries didn’t already exist, there’s no way you could get them to exist today. If someone just proposed, hey, why don’t we have this system that’s free and accessible to everybody? It would get voted down by every city council and every state legislature in the country. And so it’s a really important tradition that we have of, as you said, a place for people to gather, a place for people to have access to the internet, to knowledge, to free activities.
Marti Dirscherl: And to share ideas and be a community.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. It’s one of the only institutions, aside from public parks, that you can go to without having to spend money to enjoy yourself. And so, that is a critical institution in a society that, unfortunately, is falling apart.
Marti Dirscherl: Yeah, we’ve been given short shrift. And I’d like to really emphasize that this goes across the spectrum of staff. Every single type of position, from custodial, to security, to clerical, to library associates, to librarians, they all say the same thing: They’re not receiving a living wage. They’re not even in the ballpark. They’re not being respected for their opinions and their input. And they’re not being given the resources. Like my branch, it’s considered a training branch, and therefore it doesn’t merit a real manager.
When I first started, we didn’t have a manager for quite a while because they weren’t going to pay a manager’s salary. It’s really sad. I don’t understand. I don’t understand it. And in my branch, we are in a very vulnerable neighborhood, with homelessness and drugs, and we need people there with resources. We are the people on the front line, but they consider it a training branch. These people aren’t worth all the resources. And the people, us, paid, there to support them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s talk about how that connects to the unionization effort. And Antoinette, I wanted to maybe link this back to your 15 years at Pratt. How have you seen things change over the course of those 15 years? And how were all these changes, how did they come to a head in this organizing effort? I guess another way to put that is, could you talk to us about how the system has changed during your time there? And then, could you both tell us a little more about how the unionization effort got going? What were the conversations y’all were having with each other that made you realize we need to band together and do something about this?
Antoinette Wilson: Well, I think for me, when I saw the newcomers come in, and they did this. Not the old people, the new people that came in the door, started the union. And so, when I saw them coming in and I saw how serious they were, and I just saw the unfairness, I think that’s when I got involved. I see a lot of unfairness going on with Pratt, and it’s going to keep going on until we get a union in here, until we get someone to listen to us. If we don’t do something, it’s going to get worse. So, I think that’s when I got involved, when I saw the newcomers coming in. Because we’ve been trying to get a union since back in 2005, when I first came on board, and we got shut down from the upper top, they sent us letters out. Don’t do that, don’t join it.
And so, when you got these old folks intimidated and scared and don’t want to stand up, we could have had a union, but when they got those letters from the upper top, they just froze. And I still have a lot on my team that still haven’t come over yet, because of their own reasons. And maybe when they get their card, maybe they change their mind, but we’ve been pushing them and pushing them and pushing them. So, we just need a change. I think once we get a change, we’ll feel happy again. We’re not happy. We don’t know what we are coming to work for, we don’t know who is in the building, we don’t know who’s around the corner, we don’t know who’s going to attack us, we don’t know if I’m going to get a phone call. I don’t know anything no more. One time I did. And now, I don’t know who’s going to attack me, or who’s going to retaliate against me. That’s what I feel. I never got a headache, I never had my pressure up until what I’m going through now with this leadership.
Back then, I knew it was bad, and they had their own issues back then, but we did have an open door policy. Now, we don’t have anything. I think all the leadership is together. That’s what I’ve been seeing for the last three or four years. So, that’s why we need a union. And we’re going to be strong, and we have a powerful union, because we’ve been faithful, we’ve been meeting our meetings every Tuesday, we’ve been on Zoom every meeting. This is going to be a powerful union.
So, that’s why I joined, because I saw some strong people that were real serious, and I’m a serious person. I’m not for the joke. If you’re serious, I’m serious. And so, I see that they were serious, and that’s when I jumped in. And I saw all the pain for some people going in, so I want to help them, because they’re too weak to do it. They’re too scared to do it, so somebody’s got to be strong for our department. Like Marti, she’s got to be strong for her department, and I have to be strong for my department, because somebody’s gotta do it.
Marti Dirscherl: I was going to say that we are solid. We have solidarity in numbers. That’s all we have, is each of us standing up for ourselves and saying enough is enough, we matter, you need to listen to us. And again, we are public servants. We’re not in it for the money. We’re in it for the people. And what I wanted to say was, the thing that astounded me when I got involved back in February, and it was my understanding it started because of the COVID. Well, first because of the renovation and the things that people had to go through down in Central that were not copacetic, then COVID, and how people were treated and mistreated, and sent into situations that are unsafe.
I started discovering all of these things from people, but I also discovered how wonderful people were. How intelligent they were, regardless of what position they were, they had so much to offer. I was excited to get to know these people, because they were really great people. And I’d like to say to Pratt management, they’re very lucky to have the people that they do, because people have been standing by Pratt for a long time and not being recognized and supported for who they are.
Antoinette Wilson: And that’s true, Marti, because this is what’s going on with me now. They recognize the new people that come in, 60 days. What about the people that… Okay, I’m [inaudible], and it’s a lot of drug traffic, [inaudible]. And it’s a lot of [inaudible] people are [inaudible], and I draw a [inaudible]. I go out there and I talk with the guys, because I understand. And I’ve been there. So, I still love them. I go out there and I clean the trash up, and I’m around there, and I’m being kind with them and showing them love, and let them know, hey, you’re home, man. And let them know, hey, you’re going to get there one day. I’m there for you. I don’t sit there and just talk to them like they’re a piece of trash. They buy them. So, I love going out there with [inaudible].
I love going out there talking to them, I love going out there, sweeping my trash up – And I’m an assistant supervisor, but I still do my job as a custodial worker. So, I still do the buildings every day, I still do the trash every day, I still go outside every day. But what I don’t understand, people that come in there for 60 days, they’re the ones that get recognized. What about the people that have been there for years and two years that help the addicts when they OD? They will go into the bathroom and give them CPR or whatever. Call the ambulance. We don’t get recognized, but somebody can come out there and [inaudible] and get recognized just like that? That’s not fair. They recognize who they want to recognize. They don’t recognize the ones that work. They like, I guess, the bullshitters, and that’s who they recognize.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and this, as we said in the introduction of this segment, has been one of the central points that y’all have been raising during this unionization effort. And it, frankly, echoes a lot of the complaints that we’ve heard from workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art who just recently unionized. Workers at The Walters Museum who are trying to unionize, also with AFSCME Council 67. Workers at MOM’s grocery store up the road just unionized successfully – Shout out to MOM’s workers. But it’s a common trend that we’re hearing from working people across the city, that opportunities for advancement aren’t there, unless maybe you’re a brown noser who walks in and six months later, you get in good with the manager, you get promoted. But if you’ve been working years or decades, but you’re just not on the good side of this or that manager, you’re at a dead end.
This is something that we’ve been hearing from folks, on top of wages not being sufficient, on top of air conditioning not being in the buildings, and management not listening to workers’ complaints about these sorts of things, workers essentially not having a voice on the job. Do I have that right?
Marti Dirscherl: Absolutely. We have no voice. And what’s sad is that I don’t know if management really believes that they are listening, because that is how they put themselves out there. That’s a very big part of their message. Whether it’s staff day maybe, or maybe staff member of the month, it’s a weak effort. As my colleagues, many colleagues have said, why don’t you come down to the branch, or come to the desk, and stay there for a day and see how the job is done? There’s a lot of talk, and I can only say with the air conditioning, and I will bring it up now, the only way the air conditioning issue for the City of Baltimore’s sake, is that the union’s organizing committee composed a very articulate letter to leadership asking to know what was going on with the air conditioning.
And also asking for reimbursement for people who were shuffled from one branch to another, often with very little notice, maybe not even a day’s notice, maybe an hour’s notice, closing down branches, branches being understaffed, or continuing to make people work in hot buildings with big industrial fans and not telling anybody. This was a way for people even just to express these secrets that had been going on in all these different places that nobody knew about. We were coming together, we were discovering that it didn’t matter where you were or what kind of position you had, everyone was being disrespected, ignored, and possibly being put in dangerous situations with no accountability. So now, apparently, there is going to be a building plan. We discovered, by their own admittance, that there hasn’t been a building plan since 1997. I’ve been to just a couple buildings. One building I went to, the plaster was actually falling off the walls.
Antoinette Wilson: That’s a whole bunch of them buildings doing, that’s a whole bunch of them, that got a lot of issues going on. And also, like Marti was saying, when the COVID was going on, custodial and maintenance and security worked all year round. We weren’t on any A or B team. We didn’t get any time off. We didn’t even get a hazard pay for that. We worked all year, about two years, while COVID was going on, and we didn’t get any recognition, none. Not a thank you, not nothing. So, that shows you how they care about us. I think that the librarians and the management and all them, they had A and B team. Security and maintenance and facilities, we didn’t have that. We worked all the whole two years with no more money. We didn’t get any extra money, we didn’t get anything. We didn’t even get a thank you.
Marti Dirscherl: And I heard there were chemicals and so forth, things used.
Antoinette Wilson: Yeah.
Marti Dirscherl: And that you were sent into situations that weren’t necessarily the best.
Antoinette Wilson: So, we worked all year round, didn’t get nothing for it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and again, it’s indicative of why this struggle is so important, and why workers banding together is an issue that we should all be concerned about. Because otherwise, again, the people that we depend on to make vital institutions and businesses like the public library system run, if y’all are being disrespected and not treated like a human being, and folks are leaving, folks are feeling like their spirit is broken at work, that has a cumulative effect. Everyone suffers from that.
I know I got to let you all go soon, so that really leads us to the organizing effort. And I wanted to ask – And I forgot to mention, there was another huge organizing victory with library workers in the city as well, the county library workers, and that was a long, hard-fought struggle as well.
So, something’s definitely happening in the city. And I think that, while every workplace is different, a lot of these concerns that we’re hearing are shared across these different jobs. And I think that it’s significant that, like the Baltimore Museum of Art, y’all are fighting for a wall-to-wall union that includes everyone working in the library system in the bargaining unit. So, could you tell folks watching and listening a bit more about where we are now? What the response from management has been? What the response from the community has been to your organizing efforts?
Antoinette Wilson: Well, I think where we are now, I think we have a good space. I think we stand strong, and they know we aren’t going to bend. I got some good news today, so that made me feel good, that we will be in one union. Because at first they were trying to separate us, like always, but we kept fighting. So, that was a good sign. As far as the management, they did build it a little bit, and I do think they did a great job. At first, they did try to come out and attack, but when they saw us as strong as we were, they backed off a little bit. They gave us a little run for our money, but we did it. We did it, so I’m proud of us, just standing together. And we still have a long way to go, and we’re going to get there.
I got one young man talking to me today, trying to talk down or saying, no, no, no, no, don’t do it, talking about the union. And that was his experience, that’s fine. I have never been in a union, but I told him, I said, if I didn’t have strong people to back me up, I would never have got into it. But these people are serious, and we are strong, and we are going to do it. We have a lot of work to do, and as long as we stay together, we are going to get through it and we’re going to be a strong union. So, they know what we need. So, I’m good to be a part of it.
And I have one more thing to say. Now, I’ve been talking about security, safety. Safety. We have a lot of staff. We get there before security. And we’ve been talking about, at one time, security was to be in the building before us. Some kind of way they stopped, because they don’t want to kick out overtime.
What about the safety? We got young ladies that get in the building at 5:00, 6:00, 7:00 by ourselves. Pennsylvania Avenue is one dangerous building, and we get there before security. At one time, security used to get there before us, but they don’t want pay them overtime, so they stopped security for entering the building before the staff. That’s not cool. That’s not safe. We had one incident that had [inaudible], and if security was there, the young man probably wouldn’t be in the position that he’s in now. So, I been throwing it out to them about security, and it’s going in one end and out the other. So, if they care about their staff, they will make sure security get there before us. We get there first, all the staff. The librarians, the custodians, we all get there before security. So, what about our safety? We don’t even have that no more.
Marti Dirscherl: Yeah, I can just add to that real quickly. In my branch, there was an incident in March, and it was a rather violent incident, actually, but there was no accountability on management. I asked one of the management. The person did come, finally, to talk to us. This was an unknown, never talked, out of the blue. So, we have a talk, and I asked this person, could they reach out to the Baltimore City Police? Could we have some sort of mutual arrangement, some backup if there was some problem that we knew that we could problem solve. That’s a city agency, we’re a city agency. This person told me that they were too high up in the chain to reach out to the Police Department. I’m at a branch where we do not have security every day, we do not have guaranteed security. The only reason we have a security guard occasionally is because the three branches that are closed for air conditioning.
Going to the union, I would say that we are strong, but I’m hoping that they will bargain in good faith. I am holding my breath for that. We have it on the table, we’re hoping they come forward and they let us have our election soon. Very soon. We’ve been waiting. We went to the board, we had members from every department stand before the board, and the first thing that the director of the board said is, if they want a union, give them a union. But we’ve had pushback, and I’ll wait and see how this goes. And I hope for all of us that it will be a good outcome and that we will have a place at the table.
Maximillian Alvarez: And it’s a drawn out process, it’s a long fight, as y’all said. We know that you asked for voluntary recognition, did not receive voluntary recognition of your union, so now you’re fighting to hold a fair and free union election. We’ll of course be updating folks watching and listening as updates come, and we’d love to chat with y’all as developments come, because people want to know about how this is going. And I think, just by way of rounding out, I wanted to ask if you had any final notes for folks watching and listening in and around the city, or around the country, what they can do to show support for y’all?
Marti Dirscherl: We have a web page, Pratt Workers United. There is a space there for you to put your name as a community supporter. But I also would urge you to speak to all your neighbors, your friends, important people you may know in Baltimore City, to push for us. We’re there for you, Baltimore, be there for us. And I must say, every time they see my beautiful pin, people are very excited. And I’ve only gotten support from people. So, that makes me very happy.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, thank you both so much for sitting down and chatting with me today. I really, really appreciate it. For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/donate, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.