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Baltimore County librarians seek to unionize through legislation that’s going before General Assembly

Citing a lack of transparency and communication from Baltimore County Public Library leadership and seeking health care benefits for almost half the library system’s workforce, library employees are trying to unionize.

Librarians are seeking to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAMAW, a union representing nearly 647,000 employees across 200 industries.

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

A bill pre-filed by Del. Cathi Forbes, who represents the Towson area, and another cross-filed by Sen. Shelly Hettleman, who represents portions of the northwest county, would authorize the library’s 578 part-time and full-time employees to form a union and collectively bargain.

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“They love their jobs, they love working for the library,” said Forbes. “But they want better communication between workers and management, and … more say in decisions that are being made.”

Bridget Fitzgerald, a union organizer working with the library’s professional staff, said employees have sought to unionize for the last two years. There’s a lack of transparency in the hiring and promotion process, they say, and inconsistent policy enforcement across the library system’s 19 branches.

The pandemic has made that worse, Fitzgerald said.

The library system has alerted the public to several positive coronavirus cases since partially reopening last summer, but Fitzgerald said in at least one case in November, employees weren’t notified of the positive test until nearly a month later, and cleanings of library buildings following confirmed cases have been inconsistent across branches.

“When there actually began to be reports of positive cases among employees, they don’t feel as if BCPL is [unilaterally] following the protocol that’s laid out,” she said.

According to the library’s protocol, spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said staff is to be notified and information is shared on social media channels about any closures. The library works with the county’s property management division to clean and disinfect the branch where an employee has tested positive, she said, and those who may have been exposed are asked to quarantine.

Palmisano acknowledged “there was one instance where, due to a gap in communication, notification of a positive case was delayed by several days,” but it had been determined that it was unlikely there was exposure risk to other staff members.

“While it had been determined that there was no risk, transparency is important,” she added in an email. “We acknowledged the error to our staff and reassured them that it was an anomaly.”

County libraries are currently offering some services, mostly outdoor book pickups and drop-offs and by-appointment computer access, raising concern among part-time librarians — who make up 48% of the system’s employees — about the lack of health care benefits as they work on-site.

Part-time librarians do not receive pension contributions, dental or health care coverage through the library system. Among their benefits are accrued sick leave and two paid holidays, according to a library spokeswoman.

“Particularly at a time with the coronavirus, everything going on right now — not having health care access speaks volumes to these employees,” Fitzgerald said.

Librarians are also seeking better paid time off and said there is a “need to improve respect for employees of all levels and sensitivity to diversity issues,” according to Fitzgerald. She spoke on behalf of library employees, who were advised by management to refer media questions to a library spokeswoman.

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Fitzgerald added that preliminary conversations with library management have been encouraging, and that librarians said they largely enjoy working for the system.

“The lives of lots of workers have been challenging through COVID-19, including librarians,” Hettleman said. “The jobs of librarians are so central to a healthy and thriving community.”

In a statement, Palmisano said the library and its board are aware of the bills, and “support the right of employees to pursue collective bargaining.”

It’s unclear what fiscal impact a contract between librarians and management would have on county finances. Fitzgerald said that calls for more pay are not driving union efforts.

“A big jump in pay cannot necessarily be done right now, and they know that,” she added.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr., who has met with labor organizers, said in a statement that he “wholeheartedly embrace[s] the right of employees to unionize and collectively bargain.”

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.

According to the AFL-CIO, a coalition of labor unions, roughly 26% of librarians across the U.S. reported in 2017 they were union members.

On a website, Baltimore County librarians have indicated they’ve formed an organizing committee and are collecting union authorization cards, but are still working to gain enough employee signatures by Sept. 2021 before holding a union election.

Hearings on the pair of bills have not yet been scheduled.

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