How Academic Freedom Brought Our Librarian Union Together

Collective bargaining is a powerful tool for securing workplace rights for librarians.
By Martin J. Brennan

Recently, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state and CIA director, asserted that American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten is the “most dangerous person in the world.” Worse than the head of the Chinese government, he was asked? “It’s not even close,” he said in reply.

Now, I would assert that Mike Pompeo is a pompous and pretentious gasbag. His opinions on this topic are insincere, unhinged, and downright ludicrous, revealing a bad-faith attempt at generating outrage and scoring political points. I therefore have no patience with or interest in his perspective on anything.

Luckily, I have academic freedom.

Not that it matters in regard to my comments on Mike Pompeo. I rely on the principles of intellectual freedom, and my First Amendment right to free speech, to declare my disgust in such instances. This freedom can protect me from attacks by the government, from Mike Pompeo, and by third parties. Academic freedom is different—it is a specific right, tied to the teaching and research tasks inherent in the academic nature of my work. With my academic freedom protected by a contract, I have the right and responsibility to speak the truth as I see it, in the context of my disciplinary perspective. I can speak freely within the bounds of my professional expertise and understanding and know that I will be protected from retaliation and other damaging professional repercussions.

I know all of this from my experience in the University Council–American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), the union for librarians and lecturers in the University of California system. I have been an active member of the librarian contract-negotiating team since 2016.

In our 2018 contract campaign, we proposed a new section of our contract to formally secure rights to academic freedom for UC librarians. One story stood out and led us to push for this change: a UC librarian had been challenged by her supervisor over the title of an accepted conference presentation, which was deemed inappropriately disrespectful to library management. She was ordered to change the title and to run future research ideas past the supervisor. The librarian protested, “What about my academic freedom?” The supervisor responded, “It’s not in your contract, so you don’t have it.” Luckily, the situation was discovered and corrected by the faculty member who was serving as interim university librarian at the time. But the alarming reaction by a middle manager had us concerned. We double-checked our contract, and indeed, there was no mention of academic freedom.

The UC-AFT librarian negotiating team wrote a new contract article and proposed its formal inclusion, to quickly remove any doubt that academic librarians, long the champions of intellectual freedom, enjoy academic freedom protections. We had proposed language on dozens of other matters for inclusion in the contract, but we considered this addition one of the most important.

Bargaining Academic Freedom

Contract bargaining is a long and arduous process. We had proposed the new article after months of negotiating, and it took another meeting or two before the UC administrative team responded. I remember thinking that we had a 50–50 chance of winning on this issue. The need for academic freedom safeguards was such a simple truth of our work, such a basic building block of our academic rights, that it didn’t seem possible that the management team could deny the request, but we also knew that the administration would likely do what it always does: simply say no as an opener.

Still, it was a shock to us at the table when that happened. We pressed members of the management team for more detail, asking them to explain how and why faculty members deserved academic freedom but librarians did not. They cited the professional responsibilities and standards for faculty members, saying that they underwent peer review (just as librarians do). In the context of this back and forth they gave us the one-sentence answer that we seized upon: academic freedom is “not a good fit for your unit.” They also said that academic freedom was protected only in the classroom, not in other areas of librarians’ academic work, even though this assertion clashed with official statements from national library and faculty associations. UC administrators claimed that librarians had no expectations of protections in formulating research or speaking on matters of institutional governance—key components of academic freedom for faculty members.

This was the moment we had waited for. As the head of communications for UC-AFT’s librarian bargaining team, I knew exactly what we had to do with this utterance. The assertion that academic freedom was “not a good fit” for librarians caught the rapt attention of our members and drew the eyes of people around the world when we blogged and tweeted about it. Within a week, we had a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Twitter was ablaze with the hashtag #LibrarianAF. An online letter of protest drew thousands of signatures. We protested, with librarians marching with tape over our mouths, and adopted the catchphrase “Librarians Will Not Be Silent.” It was an exhilarating time of righteous anger and glorious purpose. We knew absolutely that the administration was wrong and that we were right on this issue. That Chronicle article had embarrassed the UC administration, and senior administrators wanted the matter sorted out fast. We had power.

The UC negotiating team had miscalculated when it presented its initial response. Negotiating team members told us they were reconsidering their position and that a blue-ribbon panel was being established to address what had been neglected: a new policy acknowledging not only our academic freedom rights but also those of individuals in all sixty other nonfaculty academic job classifications in the UC system. Thousands of UC employees would now formally enjoy academic freedom as a result of our efforts at the negotiating table on behalf of 350 librarians. Building on the attention our campaign garnered in our fight for academic freedom, we shared a dramatic presentation on the huge gap in salaries between librarians and faculty members. We soon reached agreement on a new contract on very favorable terms, with the largest salary increase in years and progress in several other crucial areas. We celebrated this great victory for our members and got back to work.

From Negotiation to Implementation

The new academic freedom policy took effect in the UC system in February 2020, eight months after the contract was ratified. When the COVID-19 lockdowns began one month later and we struggled to come to grips with remote work, other priorities distracted us from the implementation of the policy. One librarian brought academic freedom concerns to the proper academic senate committee at the University of California, Los Angeles, soon after implementation, but the review committee struggled to figure out how to handle the complaint and neglected to act. To my knowledge, as of this writing, none of the ten campuses in the UC system has issued guidelines or instructions on how librarians with academic freedom issues can have their grievances heard. Nor have we seen any information from library administration about the academic freedom policy and how librarians can put it into practice—no formal declarations about the adoption of this new policy and its positive impact upon our workforce, no instructions to middle managers on how the policy applies to them, and no advisories to our librarians.

Since no one else would do so, we helped to shine a light on this issue ourselves. I spent most of 2020–21 as president of the Librarians Association of the University of California. This group is distinct from the union, somewhat like the senate of librarians, but without shared governance. It is the body responsible for librarian peer review. We set up three training sessions at our annual meeting on academic freedom and saw strong turnout among our members. We put out a call to our members to pull together user guides and information specific to their campus and asked them to share the information on a statewide website. To our knowledge, however, not a single librarian issue has been addressed by UC senates on the ten campuses. We need a renewed effort to focus university administrators on the proper implementation of the policy and to see to it that librarians and other academics are properly served by it.

In September 2023 UC-AFT librarians will begin negotiating a new contract. Academic freedom may or may not come up again formally, but aspects of our academic freedom protections will almost certainly play a part, as weaknesses in the academic status of UC librarians persist. For instance, several campuses have difficulty allowing their librarians to submit grant proposals in which the applicant librarian is listed as principal investigator (PI). All campuses specify that staff with certain academic titles can be PIs, and all others can grant a waiver to allow staff with other titles to be PIs. But the waivers are used inconsistently across the ten campuses of the University of California. At UCLA, for example, only the university librarian can be PI on any library-related grant, and waivers will not be considered. This is a significant concern to many UC librarians, and something that may find its way into negotiations.

Strength in Unions

I am grateful that librarians at the University of California are unionized and can raise such issues at the negotiating table without endangering their work life. Being a union shop may add a layer of bureaucracy and require more deliberation in campus administration. But it places formal power and influence in librarians’ hands and allows us to raise our issues directly with the administration and demand action. Our story illustrates that unions are a powerful tool for securing and protecting academic freedom and other workplace rights for librarians.

I find it mind-boggling that our library administration treats all union engagement as a problem and will take all kinds of steps to point out that union activity is not appreciated. UC library management claims that unions are adversarial, overlooking and ignoring its own role in creating that dynamic. Unions help ensure that workplaces like UC libraries remain fair and equitable for all workers, with clearly defined processes and rules. The salary ladder is clear, and the terms of employment are helpful to all new hires. The union brings members’ issues to the administration in a formal setting, and the contract provides a formal way to structure discussion and resolve complaints. Within such a complex organization, it is a remarkable and efficient way to address our differences and work peacefully and constructively together.

Since 2018, academic librarians nationally and their staff supporters have made advances in forming their own unions. And why wouldn’t unions form in every workplace, especially those designed to work with unions, like public universities? After all, according to the Department for Professional Employees, a coalition of unions representing professional and technical employees, “librarian union members earned 38 percent more . . . than non-union counterparts.” Librarians at the University of Michigan formed a union in 2021 and signed a historic deal in 2022, while University of Washington librarians were certified as a union in 2021 and recently had a strike authorization vote. Claremont Colleges, a private institution, saw a librarian union form in 2022, and Northwestern University librarians unionized in 2020. Further examples exist, but according to the Department for Professional Employees, as of 2020 only 25 percent of academic librarians are in unionized positions.

Everyone who has the opportunity to organize the workplace should act. I can’t imagine what I would have done without the collective bargaining power of the union when I found out in 2018 that I didn’t have academic freedom protections. Our union provided the mechanism to fight for change. When you seize the opportunity to speak through a collective union voice, it invigorates your professional passions, it elevates your campus profile, and it makes you a better librarian working at a stronger workplace. Our union’s fight for academic freedom was perhaps the most significant moment in my professional career, and it was a momentous one for the whole UC system as well.

Martin J. Brennan is the scholarly communication education librarian at the University of California, Los Angeles, director of the FORCE11 Scholarly Communication Institute and a member of the FORCE11 board of directors, and a proud member of the University Council–American Federation of Teachers.

Photo courtesy of UC-AFT Librarians