Talking About Contingency At Work

Download “Talking About Contingency At Work” as a PDF.

Published: October 13, 2020


This is a set of scenarios for talking about contingent and precarious labor at work in libraries, archives, museums, and beyond. It started as a breakout group task at the Collective Responsibility forum and is now a joint project of the Collective Responsibility steering committee and the Archival Workers Emergency Fund organizing committee. Our main guiding principle is solidarity with and among contingent and precarious workers, recognizing that even “permanent” workers occupy the spectrum of contingency and precarity.

Do Your [Meta] Homework

If you're new to these conversations a good place to start is to review some of the materials already available to you:


Collective Responsibility: Seeking Equity for Contingent Labor in Libraries, Archives, and Museums (PDF). In this white paper, we describe our methodology for centering contingent worker experiences; share the results of our survey on the experience of contingent laborers in grant-funded positions delve into themes and responsibilities which arose from the forum; and develop outcomes and next steps for the Collective Responsibility project.

Collective Responsibility Labor Toolkit. This website contains several resources on organizing, as well as designing contingent positions and grant-funded projects ethically. Two publications that feature in the toolkit are: Collective Equity: A Handbook for Designing and Evaluating Grant-Funded Positions and “Do Better” -Love(,) Us: Guidelines for Developing and Supporting Grant-Funded Positions in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums, a set of guidelines for supporting contingent employees.

In addition, the DLF Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums maintains a Zotero library and resource table of citations, groups, initiatives, and materials related to LAM labor. The toolkit and these resources will grow over time with new additions.


Learn more about your workplace:

Take note of what information is not accessible and why.

Who will you talk to?

Which people or groups have a natural affinity with you / your group?

What types of conversations could you have?

What kind of communicator are you? How do you most effectively get things done?

Consider modes of discussion or information sharing:

Do your homework

  1. What information will you need in order to have these conversations / take these actions?
  2. Where / from whom can you obtain this information?

Work iteratively back & forth between script-writing and information gathering

Write the script

Prepare by writing and thinking through the conversation:

  1. What initial actions will you take, and in what order?
  2. What will you say, in what order?
  3. What questions, responses, points of confusion, or points of disagreement can you anticipate?
    • What disagreements will you let go, and where will you push back instead?
  4. What follow-up actions will you take, and in what order?

Role-Based Tactics

The following role-based approaches may be useful across scenarios:

Role Tactics Actions
Contingent workers
  • Identify or build a local trusted network
  • Learn about organizing
  • Begin to organize your workplace
  • Start talking to other contingent workers at your workplace or an affinity group & involve them in your planning
  • Gather information about organizing tactics
  • Start researching appropriate local unions
Managers - strong internal network power
  • Develop stronger local commitments (policy _and_ practice) to protect contingent workers
  • Listen to contingent workers!
  • Work to understand power dynamics within affinity groups that span the workplace hierarchy.
  • Meet with higher administration to discuss a specific activity (conference, working group, event) related to LAM labor
  • Organize a brown bag discussion for colleagues
  • Take time on staff and manager meeting agendas to discuss labor issues
  • Learn more about structural barriers to addressing contingency (e.g. talk with HR) and share what you've learned with other managers
Managers - weaker internal network power
  • Identify non-workplace domains where you do have network power and think about how those ties can support workplace equity
  • Build your internal power, if possible. Take opportunities to educate higher-ups/expose contingency concerns; seek out colleagues with stronger power as possible allies; look for opportunities to participate in new projects/committees/etc. to expand your network and grow power
  • Listen to contingent workers!
  • Provide safe spaces (no managers or administrators present) for independent reporters and contingent workers to discuss & organize
  • Help with information gathering for scenarios
  • Learn more about structural barriers to addressing contingency (e.g. talk with HR) and share what you've learned with the people you supervise
Non-contingent workers (non-managers) - strong internal network power
  • Share information up with managers
  • Share information across with peer workers
  • Support contingent workers as part of local trusted network
  • Listen to contingent workers!
  • Be a conscious communicator and set goals e.g. to talk about labor with two people this week
  • Help with information gathering for scenarios
  • Identify and reach out to affinity groups and committees to exchange concerns and goals
  • Check in with contingent workers before group meetings and offer to propose agenda items on their behalf
  • Commit to active participation in organizational planning where support for labor issues is needed (e.g. strategic planning meetings, writing vision statements, project prioritization meetings, etc.)
Non-contingent workers (non-managers) - weaker internal network power
  • Support contingent workers as part of local trusted network
  • Identify non-workplace domains where you do have network power and think about how those ties can support workplace equity
  • Listen to contingent workers!
  • Help with information gathering for scenarios
  • Show up in situations where support in numbers matters most (e.g. participating in an action as one of many, seconding or thirding a comment)

Scenario 1: Organizing Talk

I'm a “permanent” staff person at a library or archives that employs lots of contingent staff. I want to know more about their experiences and concerns.

Do your homework

The script

Follow Up / Post-Conversation Actions

Scenario 2: Contingency Bubble

I'm a middle manager who is continually offered temp positions to fill gaps. I want to talk to other middle managers about their situations, how they support temp workers, and how we can all move away from this model.

Do your homework

The script

Follow Up / Post-Conversation Actions

Scenario 3: Austerity Looms

I'm a middle manager whose library leadership is fixing to end a number of workers’ contracts as part of digging through the couch cushions for change budget savings. I want to talk to my supervisor (a department head, an associate dean) about the need to extend contracts for or offer new contracts to the at-risk workers in our unit.

Do your homework

The script

I've been reading the [big boss's] updates about budget cuts and am concerned what it could mean for the contract workers in our department. The managers and I have gotten together to discuss, and we are committed to getting contracts extended or renewed for [list names]. These people matter to our department because [list responsibilities and accomplishments, word for word, no interruptions, hand over a print copy at the end].

(At this point, administrators will say something about “needing data” to “make a case” to some unspecified higher-up. Ignore this and proceed to the next line of the script because “metrics” mean nothing and “stats” go down a black hole to nowhere, in exchange for empty promises)

If these workers are let go, we are committed to ending these projects and programs. They're so necessary to those projects/programs that it would be impossible to continue without their institutional knowledge and everyday support. [list & explain why, hand over list of projects in another packet at the end]

(let that sink in. There may be some protestation about the budget, in which case step 1 is to point to contract workers’ low pay and, if applicable, their low number)

If pressed about the budget: We've discussed alternative work arrangements that would allow the department to retain our workers while withstanding budget cuts. [explain what they are and why retaining institutional knowledge is good for the department in the long run]

Only if extremely pressed, after weeks/months of trying: We've also made a list of projects and programs that we're committed to winding down in order to retain these workers by reassigning them, in order to support the [boss's] effort to reduce the budget. We are putting workers first in order to sustain this [department/organization] in the long term.

Follow Up / Post-Conversation Actions

Scenario 4: We Are All Precarious

I work at a library where everyone is on annual contracts. There's a general expectation and historical practice of renewal, but when a major budget challenge arises we feel our precarity. I want to talk to coworkers about our situation.

Do your homework

The script

Follow Up / Post-Conversation Actions

Scenario 5: “Don't Make Waves”

I'm a recent graduate and brand new to the field. I am so thankful to have a job (and aware of the limits of my contract) that I am afraid to ask questions. I don't want to sound confrontational or step on any toes. I may err on the side of overcommitment or people-pleasing in attempts to secure longer term employment; this is counterproductive as it generally leads to burnout and failure. I want to identify a trusted local network to discuss my & others’ working conditions.

Do your homework

The script

Talking to your supervisor:

Talking to workers who are similar to you:

Follow Up / Post-Conversation Actions

Additional Scenarios

There are more occasions for LAM workers to talk about contingency than we can cover here. The following scenarios deserve future scripts of their own:

Template: Roll Your Own Script

Use this template to walk through building your own script to address a scenario in your life.

What's the scenario?


For more information about these scenarios, contact us.

The following folks contributed to the creation of this guide:

Collective Responsibility Steering Committee members

CR breakout, DLF Labor Working Group, & AWEF contributors

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