My fellow librarian (and Tolkien nerd-king) Myron (of Bibliocracy fame) is tweeting about precarious work under the #precarityis hashtag. It’s an important issue that goes far beyond libraryland, but that’s what I know because that’s the kind of job I’ve looked for recently, so that’s where this post pretty much mucks about.
#precarityis, for many of my friends, working at "the world's greatest library" in zero-hours, no-benefit jobs.
— Myron G (@Bibliocracy) January 3, 2014
One of the basic precarity issues, and this is something that people who aren’t lower mainland librarians sometimes don’t get, is the prevalence of no-guaranteed-hours librarian jobs in and around Vancouver. These jobs aren’t things you can count on to actually pay your rent. You might be able to cobble together enough shifts to do it, especially if you’re working for multiple library systems. Maybe you can snag a maternity leave term position to cover for a year, but then you get kicked right back to picking up shifts where you can.
Those on-call jobs are a terrible thing to do to workers and it’s bullshit that library systems are built on exploiting them. In my library system (which is not perfect by any means) we have three (I think) such positions, but the vast majority of librarians are full-time unionized workers with benefits and pensions and all that. Part of that is because we aren’t as desirable a workplace as Vancouver et al. And this is why I no longer live in Vancouver, though I like it more than any other city I’ve called home.
#precarityis "Well, if you're not willing to move, what do you expect?" (NB I live in one of North America's wealthiest cities)
— Myron G (@Bibliocracy) January 3, 2014
I hate that argument so much. When I tell people “Well, I went where the job was” that makes it sound so easy, like there’s no cost for these benefits. That everyone else could do it too, and if they don’t they’re dumb. Fuck that.
I am one of the absolutely fucking lucky ones.
Like any job some things suck and some are pretty good about mine, but I don’t think everyone could or should have to do move to a small town where they don’t know anyone in order to make a living doing meaningful work. I do not like the town where I live, but I don’t have to worry about my bike being stolen and losing shifts because without it I can’t afford to get to work. I have to travel five hours to hang out with my friends, but I have health benefits.
I’m adaptable enough to have an internet social life and not be totally depressed. I think of this job in this town like being in China. I did that for two years and didn’t even have any English books to read. But I’m weird like that, and that’s not how everyone else is. I also have no dependents and I’m one of those assholes who isn’t burdened with student loan debt. Like I said, absolutely fucking lucky.
— simms toomey (@simmstoomey) January 2, 2014
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t suck. I wish I lived in a place where I had friends, or at least people who shared my interests (which aren’t hunting and fishing). Avoiding that whole on-call librarian bullshit is a good economic strategy, but it’s not like I want a life lived by the most self-involved economic strategy. (Which, yes, boohoo. Privileged dude isn’t feeling socially fulfilled. Let’s all stop and pay attention.) The way this insidious system sneaks in is to make me feel like one of the lucky ones now, so how could I ever leave? I should be damned grateful. If I lose this job what happens next?
This is how you make a timid workforce that won’t challenge any sort of status quo. I had my run-in with my place of work last year and you’d better believe I backed down from fighting my intellectual freedom battle because I did not want to be fired. (I maintain that the most impressive thing about Myron’s rabble-rousing library activism is that he does it without any professional security at all.) Public librarians don’t get tenure. We tend to have unions, but for some reason changing the way this workforce is structured isn’t a priority. Around Vancouver most librarians I know and graduated with, get to work as much as they can today to get through the drought tomorrow. Catie writes very well about what the precarious life does to a person’s psyche even once they’ve got a good job.
— Jamie Fong (@Fongolia) January 3, 2014
So yeah. It’s a terrible time to be a lot of things. You should read Sarah Kendzior‘s Al Jazeera stuff on how this plays out in academia. Some people can get by, but secure employment is a thing of the past for most everyone who hasn’t pulled up the ladders behind them. It hasn’t always been this way and it shouldn’t be now.