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Legislators: Union representation gives library staff ‘greater say’ in their future | GUEST COMMENTARY

Local elected officials and library employees cut the ribbon at the newly renovated and reopened Reisterstown branch of Baltimore County Public Library this morning after a 14 month renovation. Sept. 14, 2021
Local elected officials and library employees cut the ribbon at the newly renovated and reopened Reisterstown branch of Baltimore County Public Library this morning after a 14 month renovation. Sept. 14, 2021 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Our Baltimore County Public Library system is leading the nation with innovative programs that serve our most vulnerable communities. They’ve brought social workers into library branches, created a mobile law library staffed with pro bono attorneys, and launched “1,000 Books Before Kindergarten,” a program that encourages parents and caregivers to read to very young children.

As legislators, we want to do all we can to support this system and the people who make it great. That’s why we sponsored legislation this year that grants 600 BCPL employees the right to collectively bargain, and it’s why the General Assembly passed this legislation by a wide margin. To their credit, both library management and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski also supported our legislation.

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Today, these employees have the opportunity to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and to negotiate a contract that will give them a greater voice in their workplace, making a strong system even stronger. And it couldn’t have come at a more important time.

While the county was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last year and a half, BCPL employees remained committed to taking care of our residents, even at risk to their own personal health and that of their families. They pivoted to a curbside model of book delivery and continued to provide valuable online programming for residents.

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By giving library workers a voice in safety practices and workplace rules, we strengthen the entire library system. Morale among staff members will increase, retention rates will rise, and service to library patrons will no doubt improve. These employees will be even more proud to be part of this amazing institution.

Another issue these workers have raised is inconsistencies in policy, or policy implementation, from branch to branch. As part of a union, these employees can work to even the playing field and create a uniform standard of service for all residents of Baltimore County.

A union contract will also allow these employees to bargain for stronger benefits. Right now, still in the grips of a pandemic, about half the library staff doesn’t have access to health insurance from their employer. The affected workers may be part-time, but they have full-time worries about their health.

We sometimes hear from detractors who challenge the entire of idea of unions in the 21st century, but the reality is, those voices are in a distinct minority. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that nearly 70% of Americans approve of labor unions. That’s the highest number this country has seen since 1965. And it crosses party lines, too; nearly half the Republicans in the poll also supported unions.

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The labor movement has always been the foundation of a strong middle class, creating a pathway for hardworking families to achieve the American dream. That’s very true in the Baltimore region, which has seen some of its best economic times when its workers were thriving. But the last few years have been tough for working families and hard for some employees of the county’s public library system.

We salute the BCPL employees who first spoke out about the need to join a union. We know that’s never easy, even inside an organization as progressive as our library system. This group of employees acted on behalf of their co-workers, who have consistently voiced both concerns and interest in having a greater say in library operations. We encourage all of these employees to join the IAM.

We also salute the library’s management, under the leadership of Director Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, who worked closely with us to craft legislation that was fair and meaningful to all.

Fundamentally, libraries are the keepers of our history and the source of our knowledge. Those who work inside these buildings don’t think of it as a job so much as a mission. They love the work they do and are extremely proud of the service they provide. They deserve to have a voice — and a vote — in the future of this system.

Del. Cathi Forbes (catherine.forbes@house.state.md.us) is a Democrat representing Baltimore County’s District 42a in the Maryland House of Delegates, and Sen. Shelly Hettleman (shelly.hettleman@senate.state.md.us) is a Democrat representing Baltimore County’s District 11 in the Maryland State Senate.

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