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CPL Union Workers Vote To Authorize A Strike

Union members vote Wednesday to authorize a strike but both union and library representatives say they are hoping to avoid the strike and are willing to negotiate further. [Gayle S. Putrich / ideastream]
Cleveland Public Library Downtown branch in January 2020.

Updated: 10:43 p.m. Jan. 8, 2020

Union workers voted Wednesday to put the option of a strike on the table in contract negotiations with the Cleveland Public Library. The decision was nearly unanimous, according to union representatives.

The vote gives the bargaining committee of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 (SEIU) the ability to issue a 10-day notice of a strike at any time. But the union plans to hold off on issuing that notice until after the next negotiation session, according to a statement emailed to ideastream.

“Union workers are asking CPL executives to meet as soon as possible, and for as long as necessary, to reach an agreement that addresses the staffing and security concerns of the patrons and staff,” the statement said. “While library staff members do not want to strike, the unwillingness of Library leaders to keep the public and employees safe may give them no other option.”

CPL issued its own statement in response to the vote. The library is "committed to negotiating in good faith" with SEIU, the statement said, but a strike would directly impact the community.

"If we do receive notice from SEIU that they will strike, the Library will have to temporarily close some branches and suspend some programs," the statement said. "The Library will ensure there are branches open in strategic areas of the city with library-rich programs and services."

Two more dates are scheduled this month to negotiate a replacement for the previous contract, which expired Dec. 31.

On The Sound of Ideas, SEIU Executive Board Member Erick Walker said the approximately 380 unionized library workers recognize changes the library has made to address safety concerns, such as moving nine part-time security officers to full-time positions. But security personnel aren’t present inside the library branches, Walker said.

“They’re essentially putting them in cars and responding to issues from the cars, so that’s an issue,” Walker said.

Library safety concerns escalated earlier this year when a 19-year-old died after he was found in the bathroom of CPL’s South Brooklyn Branch with multiple gunshot wounds.

The library allowed its contract with an independent security firm to expire at the end of last year. Instead, the library is relying on internal security, CPL Director of Public Services John Skrtic said Wednesday morning on SOI. Nine part-time security officers have been promoted to full-time, and the library is aiming to bring on 10 more security personnel.

“We heard that contract security is not what people wanted, so as an administration, we have to do this transition that will take a little bit of time,” Skrtic said. “But we’re moving as fast as we can to have more of our own officers.”

The library also conducted building audits with the help of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and reviewed its camera system to assess safety, Skrtic said.

As for staffing concerns, SEIU’s Walker said neighborhood branches have seen an overall staffing decline in the past ten years.

“Leadership has essentially said that the library is saving money through attrition, and not replacing staff, so that’s one way that they feel that they’re saving money,” Walker said.

The system-wide number of employees is about the same, Skrtic said, but the library has shuffled people around to meet demand.

“I do think we have the right amount of people,” Skrtic said. “We would always like more, but we have to look within what we have to make sure we’re covering our patrons.”

Library workers agreed to a wage freeze and furlough days in 2008, Walker said, and current wages reflect that freeze. CPL’s upper management have gotten raises, bonuses and benefit increases above and beyond what has been offered to union staff, Walker said.

“The library has essentially said they would like to give us a 1.5 percent [raise], which is just not going to work for us,” Walker said.

Raises and bonuses for upper management reflect increased responsibilities, Skrtic said. And union employees have gotten increases and are now paid more than counterparts in similar library systems, he said. New union hires receive between $17.50 and $24 per hour with benefits, he said.

CPL will work to keep branches open should employees strike, Skrtic said, but services and programs may be reduced as employees take on additional responsibilities.

Both union and library representatives say they hope to avoid the strike and are willing to come to the table to negotiate further. More meetings are set for Jan. 17 and 23.

CPL is also negotiating a new contract with the union representing its security and protective services officers, Laborers Local Union 860, whose previous contract also expired Dec. 31.

Negotiation dates for that contract are set through February, according to the library. Local 860 declined to comment during ongoing negotiations.