Employees in non-supervisory roles at the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL) last week rejected a contract offered by the City because it did not include stipulations that the workers are fighting for: just cause and grievance processes for contingent workers in addition to a 2% annual pay increase.
Contract negotiation is something new for these public library workers, who only began to organize themselves roughly a year ago.
All of ELPL’s non-supervisory workers are now a part of UAW Local 2256, which also represents some other workers employed by the City of East Lansing. The UAW also represents employees of the Capital Area District Libraries (CADL), a public library network which includes Lansing, Haslett, Holt, Williamston, Stockbridge, Webberville, and other communities, but of which East Lansing’s library is not a part.
ELPL has about 20 workers who fill non-supervisory roles. Only one is a full-time employee. Of the part-time workers, some are regular part-time employees who are given limited paid time off, are eligible for raises, and receive small contributions to a retirement fund. But the others are “contingent” workers, meaning they typically receive minimum wage – $9.65 an hour in Michigan – and no benefits.
According to one ELPL employee who joined the union, the pandemic influenced the decision to unionize. The employee, who asked that ELi not use their name, said that after “diligently getting books into people’s hands during the pandemic” workers joined together “for overall better working conditions.” (In this report ELi is not naming sources who are ELPL employees as they spoke to us with the understanding that we would not jeopardize their jobs for this reporting.)
In April 2020, ELi reported that the City laid off 125 employees, including 11 library pages who shelved and pulled books. The ELPL employee with whom ELi spoke explained that the process of laying off some library workers during the pandemic “was a bit opaque” and “didn’t feel fair or right or reasonable.”
At an April 2020 ELPL Board of Trustees meeting, ELPL Director Kristin Shelley said that funds to support ELPL were drying up and reported that laid-off employees were eligible for unemployment and should receive the emergency federal unemployment benefits in addition to the state’s, suggesting they might temporarily make more money unemployed.
Workers argue that it is unclear who made the decision to layoff some ELPL workers. In theory, ELPL is governed by a Board of Trustees that is appointed by City Council. That board does not appear to have met in March 2020, and the decision to layoff some ELPL workers was made a week in advance of the April 2020 board meeting.
The pandemic also highlighted other workplace issues for those in non-supervisory roles at ELPL. Often, according to an ELPL employee who spoke to ELi, workers who complete the same tasks, such as handling the check-out desk, do not receive the same compensation for doing the same job since some are regular part-time employees and others are contingent workers.
Employees also say that they do not have clearly outlined workplace expectations, leaving workers unsure of how they should complete tasks properly and how they will be evaluated on performance. An ELPL employee said that since bargaining has begun, at least one member of the bargaining team has received multiple negative evaluations, which have not been based on written expectations.
The workers unionized, the employee said, to achieve fair and just compensation for their labor. They say they are calling for all employees, including contingent ones, to have:
- paid time-off, including holidays and sick days;
- better pay;
- clearer expectations for all work;
- compensation for all work done on behalf of the library;
- due process in all disciplinary cases;
- a meaningful say in determining working conditions;
- a reasonable sense of stability, meaning some understanding that a worker’s job will not be suddenly terminated.
So, why did the workers turn down the most recent contract?
According to Scott Dedic, who represents the workers on behalf of the UAW, the answer is simple: The contract presented by the City included neither limiting termination to “just cause” and a grievance process for contingent workers nor an annual percentage raise of 2% that matched that the raise promised to ELPL Director Kristin Shelley.
Contract negotiations began in November 2020, after the overwhelming majority of workers voted for unionization and the effort was officially certified by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in September 2020.
In Michigan, workers who unionize must prove that a majority of workers in an operation support unionization. This can be done by signing union cards. Prior to the election, a petition was delivered to library administration in July 2020, asking for voluntary recognition of the union based on the fact that over 65 percent of workers signed union authorization cards.
But employers also have a right to call for an election in which workers must vote to show that they support unionization. In this case, almost all non-supervisory role workers supported unionization. (The three ELPL employees who hold supervisory roles also voted to unionize and join the UAW, but they are not part of the same bargaining team as those in non-supervisory roles.)
Dedic explained that just cause and a grievance process are critical for a union to function. Just cause means that employers must provide a reason to discipline or fire a worker. A grievance process provides workers with formal channels to express dissatisfaction and allege violation of policy or law by an employer.
A union cannot properly do its job and represent workers without just cause and a grievance process, said Dedic. He described a contract without those provisions for contingent workers as “a non-starter.”
Dedic also pointed out that the City is only offering non-supervisory workers a 1.5% annual raise while the library’s director receives a 2% annual raise as per the City’s non-union wage increase schedule. Dedic argues that since so many non-supervisory positions are part-time and low-paying, a 2% increase on their pay would only add minimal cost to the budget.
In her 2016-2018 contract, Shelley was promised an annual salary of $101,899 plus $3,000 in annual contributions to her retirement account; health and dental insurance; paid time-off and holiday pay; $150 a month for a car allowances; reimbursement of her cell phone plan; professional development expenses; and reimbursement for other work-related expenses.
By way of comparison, as of 2020, the Executive Director for CADL receives a base salary of $105,000 with eligibility for non-guaranteed bonuses; six weeks of vacation annually; health, dental, and vision insurance; coverage of out-of-pocket expenses; and coverage of up to $2,000 in professional membership fees. While CADL consists of 13 branches across Ingham County, ELPL has one branch.
Both ELPL employees and Dedic believe a 2% raise for all employees is an issue of fairness. All workers contribute to keeping the library running for residents and should be fairly compensated for that, he said.
“The public library is one of the most popular institutions,” said an ELPL employee. “The people who make it work should be valued. We really do trust that the public believes this.”
Both the employee and Dedic also point out that ELPL receives much of its financial support through two millages, which comes to approximately 1.997 mills, with other smaller portions coming from the State of Michigan, penal fines, and private donations.
One millage for ELPL was approved by East Lansing’s Council in July 2012, and will soon either end or be renewed by Council. The other was approved by voters in November 2012 and would have to be voted on again in 2022 to be renewed.
Both Dedic and ELPL employees believe East Lansing taxpayers would be unhappy if they believed their tax support for the library was not being used fairly among workers. That’s one reason why they are going public with their complaints.
Now that the union members have turned down the contract offer, the City’s and the union’s bargaining teams are finding dates to return to the table. But Dedic said the union plans to escalate its tactics by drawing increased public attention to the issue and asking the labor community to show solidarity.
Dedic also told ELi that contract negotiations for ELPL supervisory workers will begin after contract bargaining for non-supervisory workers is complete.
ELi reached out to the City for comment on this story on Wednesday, July 28. One day later, the City’s Communications Coordinator, Mikell Frey, notified ELi that answers were delayed most likely “until next week due to the current work schedules for the staff members that will need to provide these answers.”
This story was updated on Aug. 2, 2021, at 7:55 a.m. to include clarifying information on the unionization process.