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Baltimore County lawmakers advance bill that would allow library employees to unionize

Baltimore County senators voted Tuesday morning to advance a bill authorizing county library employees to unionize.

If approved by the full state Senate, the legislation will authorize around 600 county library employees to collectively bargain and join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a union representing nearly 647,000 employees across 200 industries.

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Library employees have sought to unionize for two years, said Bridget Fitzgerald, a union organizer working with the library’s professional staff, and want health care benefits for part-time employees, who make up 48% of staff.

Library employees have cited a lack of consistent centralized communication from administration across the system’s 19 library branches.

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Part-time librarians do not receive pension contributions, dental or health care coverage through the library system.

A library spokeswoman said their benefits include accrued sick leave and two paid holidays.

The bill’s counterpart, sponsored by Democratic Del. Cathi Forbes, has cleared the House with amendments clarifying employer rights, which employees may be included in a union and establishing a union petitioning process.

The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat. The bill, she said, provides an framework to allow full-time and part-time library employees to organize a bargaining unit.

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No members of the county delegation objected to the bill during the vote held by video conference and Fitzgerald said Monday she’s confident the Senate version is poised to pass. If employees seek to form a union, they must file a petition to hold a representation election after collecting signatures from at least 30% of workers who could be included in the unit.

Negotiations for health care benefits would go through Baltimore County’s Health Insurance Division, which determines medical, prescription, dental, vision and other benefits for full-time employees of county government, the Baltimore County Public School System, Community College of Baltimore County, county Revenue Authority and Baltimore County Public Library.

Library employees in three of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions — Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties — have sought, and been granted, the right to unionize, although Howard County librarians have yet to form a union.

The library Board of Trustees voted in February to hire lobbyists from Cornerstone Government Affairs, a Washington-based consultant, to work with state legislators on amending the bills.

The library system is paying $6,000 per month for its services, library spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said. The library system director and the board of trustees have both said they support the bill.

Maureen Walsh David, president of the board of trustees said the original Senate bill as proposed lacked clarity on rules regarding employer rights and who would be eligible to form a union during testimony in a Senate finance committee meeting in February.

County senators voted Tuesday to align the language of the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Because local library systems were established by the state, the Maryland Attorney General’s office advises that collective bargaining be authorized through state legislation rather than a local charter amendment, which could be challenged in court.

Baltimore County Library expenses could increase significantly, according to the bill’s fiscal note, if library administration hires outside mediators, raises salaries and increases fringe benefits.

The County Council ultimately has final say on library funding when it votes on the budget each year. The library system’s operational costs were $43.1 million this fiscal year, according to the county budget.

The library system received $6.4 million from grants and other non-county government sources, which supports operations and capital projects, in fiscal 2021. Maryland pays retirement benefits for some eligible library employees.

The library system is estimated to have brought in about $2.6 million in operating funds, from fines, fees and sales this year, according to the county’s budget.

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