Days Before Planned Strike, Cleveland Public Library and Union Reach Agreement

Cleveland Public Library (CPL) management and its library workers’ union have narrowly averted a 400-person strike that would have temporarily closed some of its 27 branches and reduced services across the system. As negotiations extended past the union’s contract expiration, the library was also criticized by union members and their supporters for its social media messaging around the labor dispute.

cleveland public library ceiling with decorative tile work
Cleveland Public Library Main Branch
Photo by Erik Drost CC BY 2.0

Cleveland Public Library (CPL) management and its library workers’ union have narrowly averted a 400-person strike that would have temporarily closed some of its 27 branches and reduced services across the system. Library workers said that they were concerned about safety and security, and wanted branches to be adequately staffed. As negotiations extended past the union’s contract expiration, the library was also criticized by union members and their supporters for its social media messaging around the labor dispute.

The workers—who include librarians, library assistants, and custodians—are represented by Service Employees International (SEIU) Union District 1199 WV/KY/OH. Their last three-year contract expired December 31, 2019, after negotiations with the library system that had been in progress since November reached an impasse.

 

SECURITY, STAFFING, WAGE SCALE CONCERNS

CPL workers are covered by two unions—SEIU, which represents library workers, and Local 860, which represents safety officers. Both union contracts expired at the end of 2019, but Local 860 had agreed to continue talks into February.

According to SEIU, the union initiated contract talks a year earlier, in January 2019. CPL said the library suggested renewing the contracts in their original form in September, but the union denies that this request was made—and that the library then asked for around 30 to 40 changes to the contract.

Although neither side responded to LJ’s request for comment during the course of the negotiations, the library issued a statement in early January addressing both security and compensation. It noted that a safety task force had been created in collaboration with both unions, and the implementation of its patron code of conduct had been revised. In addition, the library engaged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to review the system’s physical infrastructure and cybersecurity—adding door locks, rearranging furniture, enhancing lighting, and reducing landscaping to improve sight lines inside and out.

CPL stated in early January that it had 11 open positions and that it would be actively recruiting. In addition, it planned to add ten full-time security positions and transition nine part-time safety and protective services officers to full-time.

The library also noted that starting salaries for CPL workers range from $17.50 to $24 an hour with benefits—according to the statement, CPL union staff is among the highest paid in the state, earning 50 to 60 percent more than counterparts in Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Dayton. Union staff have received raises each year for the past five years, the statement noted.

The union responded that staffing and safety issues were of greater concern than salaries. In addition to requests for increased staffing that would enable library workers to serve patrons as their needs continued to grow, worker safety was of primary importance; in July 2019 a 19-year-old man was fatally shot at CPL’s Brooklyn branch after arguing with another patron.

On January 8, an “overwhelming and nearly unanimous” strike authorization vote was held at four CPL branches. With that authorization, the union was able to issue a ten-day notice of intent to strike, and stated that workers would do so at noon on February 4 if a deal with library management could not be reached.

The last time SEIU library workers went on strike was on April 20, 2004—National Library Workers Day—where nearly 400 employees organized a one-day strike to protest concessions in the areas of health care, seniority, job bidding and other provisions that they were asked to take during negotiations to replace an expired contract.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA UNDER FIRE

In early January SEIU District 1199 consulted with its legal counsel to determine whether the library’s use of social media to publicize information about the negotiations broke state law or library policy.

State law prohibits public entities from using public money to support or oppose “any labor organization or any action by, on behalf of, or against any labor organization” in any form of newsletter, which includes social media. The library’s social media policy incorporates this law, explicitly prohibiting posting for or against labor organizations.

However, the library’s use of social media to post news items, such as a statement from the library about the strike authorization, was legal, it stated.

“The Library’s communications [in question] have not been for the purpose of opposing a labor organization or its actions, but have been for the purpose of providing information to the public about the operations of the library system by including information on, among other topics, the Library’s finances, wages, expenditures, and the impact a strike would have on Library operations, as well as its plans concerning negotiations. The law specifically permits a public entity to provide such information to the public," the library said in a statement. "The Library decided that communicating on social media and by newsletter distribution would be the most direct and quickest way to provide information to the public, since it is important that our patrons who use our facilities know where and when the library branches will be open.”

Tweets from the library account attempting to directly address and refute union claims were criticized by other Twitter users, who posted responses such as “I don’t want to see this on the @cleveland_pl twitter account. This account should represent the entire organization, not management’s position on union negotiations. Be better, do better. Respectfully, A Cleveland tax payer and library user.”

But CPL’s use of Twitter and Facebook were intended to be informational only, according to CPL director of public services John Skrtic. “We wanted to have a platform where we could let the public know that we were working with the union,” Skrtic told LJ. Although he could not speak to the marketing team’s work, he said, “Some people felt that as a public institution we shouldn't say anything [on social media] and just do it at the negotiating table, but I think the intention of the team was to put out facts so people had an understanding that we were trying.”

 

AN ACCORD IS REACHED

With notice of the impending strike looming, CPL and SEIU District 1199 went back to the table on January 17 and again on January 23. This time both parties were able to reach a tentative contract agreement with some give-and-take on individual items. On January 30, days before the planned strike, the library and its union reached an equitable agreement.

“We worked all day to whittle away some of the articles there,” said Skrtic, who was a member of the library’s negotiating team. “We weren't really getting anyplace, so we as a team said if we take some things off the table and we offer a ratification bonus, hopefully we could give SEIU 1199 some of the things they'd been asking for and set us up. It was a true negotiation process.”

One of the issues in play was the need for a wage scale in increments that reflected employee seniority—a plus for both library workers and management. “We want to attract new talent in the future,” said Skrtic, “and this way people will move up a scale for their dedication and for their knowledge.”

The three-year contract was voted on and approved by the CPL board of trustees on January 29. The board approved a step-based wage scale, with increases set at about 40 cents per year, as well as bonuses between $100 and $1,000 for all employees and a two percent increase for non-union employees. The new contract does not address safety issues; negotiations with safety staff are ongoing.

Going forward, said Skrtic, he would like to increase channels of communication between library leadership and other divisions. As director of public services, he explained, “I meet with leadership almost every week. We would like to mimic that process around different administrative units.”

He’s been talking to union leadership since the contract was approved, Skrtic told LJ, “and we're [wondering] how we move ahead and heal and get back to basics. So we're going to endeavor to meet together more frequently and invite more people to the table.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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