by Marcus Harrison Green
A protracted battle between the King County Library System (KCLS) and the union representing its more than one thousand library workers continues to intensify on the eve of contract negotiations between the two.
At the heart of the 15-month-long struggle is a cost of living adjustment for the library workers which would make up the difference in expenses from now having to pay for health insurance out-of-pocket.
Union representatives claim that the higher medical costs would disproportionately impact part-time librarians.
“The administration continues to fight us tooth and nail on this,” Maggie Block says.
Block is a librarian at the Skyway Library in the West Hill area, which is primarily staffed by part-time library workers.
The branch reopened in a new building in January of 2016 and has seen a circulation increase of 14 percent, an uptick in patronage, and robust programming – factors that Block says have contributed to a heavier workload for the librarians, without much in the way of equitable compensation.
“We’re just asking for a fair contract,” Block tells me, adding that the increase in medical expenses would take a huge chunk out of the part-time staffers’ already meager checks.
According to her union, that equates to a slight raise to help to offset the increased cost.
While this has emerged as a sticking point between the two sides, negotiations have not been totally fraught, as the library workers recently obtained some victories.
Outside of KCLS no longer withholding pre-budgeted, retroactive pay increases for workers, they also dropped their demand for any discussion of medical benefits to be off the table during negotiations.
Block credits the victories to overwhelming support from community members, which manifested itself in a targeted campaign blitzing KCLS administration with emails and phone calls demanding pay increases for the workers.
The library workers are engaging in the same tactic before negotiations between the two sides pick back up on Thursday, February 9.
They’re asking for supporters to flood the administration once again with calls before Wednesday’s negotiations asking KCLS to yield to both a cost of living adjustment for librarians and an increase in work hours for library pages to 20 a week so that more will qualify for health benefits. Currently, only 6 pages in the entire county qualify for such benefits.
KCLS representatives say that they’re weighing the demands of the workers with those of its accountability to King County residents.
“We support and respect the right of our employees to bargain collectively and view our discussions with our unions as the opportunity to keep KCLS as a great place to work and as a library that provides premier service to our patrons. We balance this perspective with a fiduciary responsibility to King County taxpayers to exercise fiscal prudence and to spend tax dollars as efficiently as possible,” Jim Wigfall, President of the KCLS Board of Trustees said in an email response to the union’s campaign.
The King County Library System is currently funded through property levy and tax revenue from new construction. Because of a Washington State law limiting an authority’s taxing ability on existing properties, KCLS can only currently receive a maximum revenue increase of 2.5 percent per year, when factoring in taxes from new construction.
KCLS, which is not governed by the King County Council, argues that this is not enough to offset escalating operating expenses, leading to some necessary belt-tightening.
The union contends that KCLS currently has $52 million in reserves accumulated over the years, and can afford the modest cost adjustment.
“We’re not asking for the world. We’ve already met them halfway on our health benefits and wage increases. We’re willing to share in some of the austerity. We just want what’s fair,” Block says.
She’s hoping the majority of her patrons share in that desire by demonstrating their support this week.
You can read the library workers’ statement of support here.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image credit: Devin Chicras