I met Aliqae Geraci awhile ago at a meeting of the NYC chapter of Radical Reference, and was really interested in her wide range of library work and activism. We happen to know Steph, the editor of the zine Suburban Blight, in common. While I was trying to figure out what to write about for the newest issue of Steph’s zine, the thought struck me that I would really like to interview Aliqae to learn more about her involvement in both labor and library activist movements.
This interview was featured in issue #10, which was just published. I’ll be posting the interview to my blog in two sections due to its length.
1. K: After several years as a librarian at Queens Borough Public Library (QL) you transitioned into a role as a research analyst at a labor union. What in particular spurred this career change for you? Can you please describe a typical workday?
A: The drive behind my career change goes back to my original academic background, Labor Studies. I planned to go to library school and get a second Master’s and then work in a labor library or as an instructional librarian in an academic Labor Studies program. I also researched other possibilities — what else I could do with this professional skill set—like working as a researcher for a labor union.
I thought it would be a crapshoot given the general labor market, as I graduated in May 2008 right when the economy had kicked the bucket. During my last semester in library school I watched jobs disappear. I had worked in a labor library part-time and was offered a full-time job at QPL when I graduated, which allowed me to be active as a rank and file union member. This was deeply transformative for me.
I worked at QL for three years, and was getting a second Master’s in Labor Studies at the same time. Right around the time I finished the MA I was hired by AFSCME – DC 37 [New York City’s largest public employee union]. I didn’t come randomly into my job – I walked towards it. I’m very lucky.
I don’t have an average workday because I don’t work in public services anymore. I juggle a variety of long-term research projects with short term requests such as questions about civil service tests, how many people are in a local union, city budget analyses, union contracts… I also work on trying to get the archives into working order, ready reference, and knowledge management… many different things. I get to attend negotiations, meetings and protests for our 53 different local unions – workers from parks departments, botanical gardens, libraries, etc. These practical applications make every minute spent on a spreadsheet worth it.
2. K: I’m aware that you’re very active in the collective Urban Librarians Unite (ULU). Can you please give a brief history of ULU and explain its relation to Save NYC Libraries?
A: ULU was started by Christian Zabriskie three or four years ago as a casual monthly social get-together for NYC librarians. We’d go to a restaurant/bar, talk shop, and meet other librarians. It was predominantly Queens public librarians, but academic librarians and students came as well.
In 2009 Bloomberg proposed unusually bad library budget cuts – we were all scared shitless. Neither the library nor the city were giving us information and we were terrified we were going to get laid off and no one was doing anything about it. Christian had an idea to do a postcard campaign – people could write what they love about their libraries and send them in to the city council.
In the meantime, the city council cut a deal and no layoffs went out – but the seed had been planted. We kept talking, and when next year came around, even worse budget cuts were proposed – 1/3 of the library budgets of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and QPL. Pink slips went out to 1/3 of the library staff over a 2-week period.
Everyone was shocked because there hadn’t been library layoffs in twenty years. We looked at advocacy materials created by the library and local union, but we thought it was bullshit. ULU said “We see how it is – you’re not going to do a damn thing about it, so we’ll do it our own way.” Most of the people talking were those who had gotten pink slips. We only had one month before the city budget was settled, so this gave us a window to influence the city council. We knew we had to put independent pressure on the library, the mayor, citizens… tell them that if they supported libraries they’d have to show Bloomberg he would need to cough up the money. Organizing as library staff, we put pressure on the media and tried to get library users to put pressure on political decision makers. We also organized a 24-hour read-in.
Way more media attention was received than we ever anticipated – ULU was covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, on TV stations…it was a whirlwind. Lots of articles were published in media outlets about cuts to NYC libraries. We built waves of pressure – with rallies, canvassing with petitions, and asking people to sign postcards (6000 in total) to send to city council.
In the end, city council restored almost all of the funding, but QPL still laid off 44 workers, which had repercussions in labor-management relations that can still be felt today. The events of that month shaped Save NYC Libraries as a project and ULU’s utility in building a coalition of city council members, professional groups, student groups, etc. ULU contacts every library group we can find every year to build support, as we’re all in this together.
Some Save NYC Libraries projects have been a zombie march to protest mid-year budget cuts and Hug the Library at NYPL’s Schwartzman Library. We also coordinated with the four public library local unions who did amazing work in the branches – this work of union members resulted in dozens of rallies and outreach events. Library stakeholders build a strategy from January on, and a structure is maintained over the year so that when budget cuts come we are ready to fight – and to think, all of that came out of a monthly gathering where we shoot the shit with our fellow librarians.