A bill that would allow Harford County library employees to form a union was introduced Feb. 11 to the General Assembly by Del. Steve Johnson.
“This bill [HB1225] is not about encouraging or discouraging people to join a union,” said Johnson, a Democrat representing District 34A. “It’s about creating a pathway for them to exercise their constitutional right if they so choose.”
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers sponsored the bill and is working with Harford County Public Library employees who expressed their desire to form a union after the General Assembly approved legislation last year that authorized Baltimore County library employees to unionize with the IAM. .
Library employees in Montgomery and Prince George counties are unionized, and they’re allowed to unionize in Howard County but have not done so.
According to IAM organizer Bridget Fitzgerald, one of the driving forces for Harford library workers to unionize is a “lack of respect” from administration.
“They don’t feel as if anything that they suggest or propose to management is considered,” Fitzgerald said.
Megan Baker, marketing and communications specialist for the Harford County Public Library, said she’s noticed the lack of respect when changes are made with little notice given to staff, such as when the branches first opened back up after lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic and had to provide curbside pickup. Baker has also noticed a lack of staff morale in recent years due to large numbers of staff vacancies.
“It’s not uncommon to have positions that are left vacant for months, some even years,” Baker said. “During that time, staff that are there are the ones who have to pick up that slack, and there’s no sense of urgency as far as filling those positions. I feel is very kind of disrespectful to staff that we are treated in such a way that we feel that we are not of importance.”
Fitzgerald estimated that about 16 percent of county library staff positions are vacant, a status unchanged since before the pandemic.
Library associates Suzy Vogtman and Morgan Michael said they have noticed a change in attitude from administration within the past five years.
“It’s not just that they’re unwilling to listen,” said Michael, who has been with the system for approximately 14 years, “they’re more willing to make you feel bad for asking about [things].”
Vogtman, who has been with the libary system for about 23 years, also noted a loss of creative control over programs she ran for the teen services department, such as writing and filmmaking contests.
“It’s just not good, and it used to be so good,” Vogtman said.
Baker also said she has noticed staff members being scared to speak up to administration in fear of retribution or retaliation.
“We’re not saying that we’re going to unionize,” Baker said, “but we want to have the ability to do that because we have tried going to the board. We have tried talking to administration and bringing up our concerns, and the response has not been welcoming. It hasn’t been constructive. It’s been dismissive and disrespectful, and that’s why we are in the position that we’re in.”
If Johnson’s bill passes in the legislature, Michael’s goal would be for a “real partnership between the people who are still working in the branches and the administration.”
Mary Hastler, the CEO of the library system, said she has not heard any reasons why employees want to unionize.
“I’m puzzled and a little bit befuddled by it,” Hastler said. “We have a great relationship with all our employees. We’re a terrific place to work.”
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Hastler said she has an open-door policy to hear staff concerns and that this bill came “out of the blue.”
“I’m not quite sure what would be gained by it,” Hastler said. “We have terrific benefits. We have flexible work schedules. We’re doing teleworking still to support everyone.”
Hastler said that there’s no law currently preventing county library employees from forming a union, but according to Fitzgerald, because they’re public sector employees and therefore not protected by the National Labor Relations Act, legislation is required for them to have the power to organize.
Baker, Vogtman and Michael, like many other library system employees, are hoping the bill passes. Fitzgerald noted that the three women would speak to The Aegis as long as all of them were quoted and not just one person, “for fear that it just becomes one person that management targets.”
“I’m hoping that this bill goes through and that we get the respect that we deserve because we work hard for this county,” Vogtman said. “We work hard for the library.”
HB1225 is scheduled for a hearing on March 8. Johnson said he thinks this should be a statewide bill, “so we don’t have to keep coming back for every county to piecemeal this,” and that may be a possibility in the future.