Friday being the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers — mostly women, mostly immigrants — I am thinking about worker’s rights and worker’s power. It’s been hard not to think about this since Wisconsin public workers from all corners joined together in a noble fight against legislative bullying (and lying). Like all workers, library workers owe much to the U.S. labor movement, as well as those movements of excluded workers currently struggling for rights and recognition.
Teens make up one important class of those workers. In my day-to-day work I interact with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of young people. The more active among them — youth advisors and volunteers — are deeply concerned about reductions in library funding and the ways libraries can be undervalued by legislators, voters and school boards. Their concern extends to the library workers whom they have known since they were children attending storytimes, getting lost with a book in oversized beanbag chairs, and shaping their identities as great debaters, writers and community organizers — today’s library advocates and tomorrow’s library leaders.
We don’t talk much about labor history or working conditions. But we should. Some teens I work with are frustrated they can’t start earning needed income before age 16. This is a labor issue. It begs a history lesson. Some drop out of school to save up needed money to get their own place by the time foster care ends. Most will need to pay their own way through college. We talk about their options. We troubleshoot. No state i.d., constantly changing home addresses. But we should also talk about their rights, their responsibilities, and the responsibilities of their government and their employers. Some are locked out of work before they even get a chance to join the rank and file. Daily survival limits the time we have for deeper discussion.
Today I am thinking about worker protections, about my own workplaces, and how I can share this with young workers. Today I am grateful for the incredible history of the U.S. labor movement. I am hopeful that it can do better. I am committed to working on behalf of those workers still not fully represented or protected by U.S. labor. Those excluded workers are organized and they deserve our full support, as they always have.
Until all of us are included, none of us should settle.