When teens and librarians planned a Drag Make-Up Hour at the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, MA (a small town about 25 miles north of Boston) they drew fury from a handful of right-wingers—and heartfelt support from the community, including dozens of union members from the North Shore Labor Council. Holding rainbow signs that read “North Shore Labor Council: Where No Worker and No Union Stands Alone,” they joined hundreds of others from LBGTQ+, faith, peace, and environmental communities. Altogether, more than 350 counter-protestors formed a “wall of love” outside the library at the May 2023 event, greatly outnumbering the 10 protestors who held signs reading “Make America Great Again: Vote Republican” and “Straight Pride.”
Libraries have become a frontline in the fight against authoritarianism. The free speech organization PEN America found that school districts in 32 states have banned books, impacting almost four million students. Moms for Liberty and dozens of other organizations are showing up at libraries to protest LGBTQ+ events. Librarians are facing everything from vandalism to budget cuts to right-wing takeovers. The attacks against Drag Story Hour events are spreading internationally. But a wide group of allies are joining librarians to fight back: LGBTQ+ groups like the Parasol Patrol, faith groups, and For the People: A Leftist Library Project. This summer, For the People hosted Libraries and Lemonade events where members could speak with neighbors about the importance of public libraries.
While librarians’ organizations and unions are paying close attention to the attacks, the broader labor movement has been slow to engage. Many union members in blue states may not realize the attacks—and a growing authoritarian movement—are right in their backyard. Some union leaders are nervous to raise politics in their local, knowing that 40% of union members voted for Trump. But a Labor Council, a regional arm of the AFL-CIO, allows workers from all unions to learn from one another.
“A Labor Council is where Teamsters can hear from librarians, and teachers can hear from building trades workers, and so on,” said Pat Kelly, a librarian and longtime delegate to the North Shore Labor Council. “That’s why the Labor Council is so great. You can start to get to know what other people do and then you can value or respect their work, and then that opens up conversation.”
Kelly, who is President of the Massachusetts Library Staff Association, was invited to speak to the North Shore Labor Council in April about the attacks on libraries. While the Labor Council had held prior political education events discussing the rising threat of authoritarianism, some delegates were shocked to hear about the extent of the attacks on libraries, including in their own state. At the meeting, another librarian and longtime member of the Labor Council, Julie Curtis, shared how she had been getting death threats from people in Georgia, who told her, “Jesus is going to come down and beat you to death with his cross.”
“That got people’s attention,” said Labor Council President Adam “Kaz” Kaszynski. Kelly said a lot of union members had not been aware of the attacks on libraries. “It was nice to see that people of all backgrounds, ages and socio-economic levels were very upset at what was happening to libraries,” she said.
Shortly after the presentation, Curtis reported that right-wingers were planning a demonstration outside of the Danvers Make-Up Event. After consulting with Kelly, the Labor Council put out the word for union members to join the counter-protest.
Organizing within unions
Kaz said there was some pushback in a few places from union members who wondered why the Council would get involved or why the information was in their newsletter. Kaz’s response was, “If we aren’t going to defend kids and librarians and other union members, why are we doing this?”
A few of the delegates explained why they showed up. Some were there to support librarians who were being harassed. The attacks on librarians, whether unionized or not, are attacks on workers. Others were angry that protestors would try to interfere with people’s right to do what they wanted with their own time. Kevin, a long-time delegate at the Labor Council, said that his vision of what makes people free is their right to do what they want without the state telling them how to live their life.
Jackie Miller, a librarian and member of IUE-CWA 201, organized her coworkers to attend the protest. Afterwards, she wrote in an article for her union newsletter, “Members of our union and many others were there in force along with many others supporting the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and promoting acceptance and inclusivity of any person or group just trying to live their lives and doing no harm to others.” Miller urged her coworkers to be ready to fight book banning as well, warning, “Cut off the flow of information, and you can control what people think and believe.”
Jeff Crosby, former president of the Labor Council, explained that the North Shore Council had held short educational sessions within their monthly meetings in the prior year, focused on white supremacy and its history in the labor movement, using some curriculum developed by Bill Fletcher Jr. and April Sims and modified by UMass Lowell labor extension staff Susan Winning. Crosby says, “I think this focus gave people the basis to recognize other elements of fascist movements.” The Labor Council also organized an educational conference on “Fighting the Right” which drew over 100 people, mostly union members but also environmentalists and other people from the community.
Keeping up the fight
Being a member of a union increases the likelihood that someone will vote Democratic. For example, while white men who are union members still lean Republican, they are far less likely to vote Republican than non-union white men. Still, overall, there has been growing support for Republican and Trump candidates in the last few years. This has created tension within some unions and Labor Councils as members diverge on key issues.
For Kevin, the library protest wasn’t about Republicans versus Democrats. He sees the rise of MAGA politics as an existential threat to labor unions and an attack on basic freedoms for working people. He hopes more union members will study history and see the real threat MAGA politics brings and step up to fight it. A former Verizon worker, Kevin was a picket captain during strikes. The union had a phone tree to alert all members to any scab trucks in the area. Members would show up and surround the truck to slow the jobs down. He hopes to enact a similar kind of phone tree to mobilize counter-protests for any kind of MAGA demonstration in the area.
Jackie Miller is also ready to fight. “If you hear of a parent wanting a book banned in a school or someone demands a book banned at your local library, just put out the word,” she said. “We’ll be there to protest because Local 201 members will be damned if we let anyone dictate what others can read.”
While some of the protestors and people behind the protests can’t be swayed, there are others who might be. Kevin believes the Right is picking issues like gay rights specifically to drive a wedge between people.
“Those nuns beat a lot into me, too,” he said. “That took a lot of years to get rid of, so I know it takes a lot of education and a lot of courage to stand up to it.” He approaches people with the goal of making them laugh as a way to open up conversation, or to find common ground, which is partly why he carries an American flag. And for those people who can’t be moved—who are affiliated with neo-Nazi or other right-wing organizations— he attempts to disarm and confuse, such as by also carrying what he calls his hippie flag.
Kaz said that one of the benefits of leading a Labor Council is that there is some autonomy; you have more freedom to take stands that might be controversial within a union. The North Shore Labor Council has now asked the Massachusetts State AFL-CIO to address a resolution supporting the defense of libraries.
Kelly said that for the Massachusetts Library Staff Association, the counter-protest was a very positive experience: “It was just wonderful to see people from painters, people from GE, veterans, all coming out in support of libraries and librarians’ ability to program what they feel is appropriate for their patrons.”
It isn’t just that a labor council brings together people from different unions and occupations; it is a place to build relationships. “When your fellow delegates at the labor council tell their stories, it becomes personal and gets people pissed off—maybe like when a family member comes out and defending gay folks from assholes becomes very personal and relevant,” Crosby said.
North Shore Labor Council members felt good about the Danvers event. There haven’t been any more incidents in their area, but they know they need to remain vigilant. There is a growing neo-Nazi movement even in Massachusetts. As Kevin warned, “It’s a much bigger issue than books or libraries, or if you are gay or straight. If these people win, they are going to crush us.”
See the Library Defender Resource Center for ways to get involved in defending libraries.
Featured image courtesy of North Shore Labor Council.