Library merger stuck on labor issues

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Within a year of opening its brand new Central Library, the Minneapolis Public Library was forced to cut back on hours in order to stay within budget.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

The merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems is generally considered a good idea. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Right now, the most bedeviling detail involves the transfer of employees from the city to county payroll.

"Hennepin County is demanding that the library workers accept lower wages and a longer work week as a county-imposed condition of the merger," according to Eliot Seide.

Seide is the executive director of AFSCME Council 5, which represents the majority of both county and city library workers. AFSCME opposes the resolution recently passed by the county that stipulates that Minneapolis library employees will enter the county system at the county's wage scale.

Neither the union nor library board has exact figures on how many of the 175 Minneapolis employees face potential wage cuts under the merger. The board estimates that number at between 10 to 20 percent. But Seide says that estimate is probably too low. He says that under the county wage system these workers will have their pay cut by six percent.

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"All the Minneapolis city library workers are asking is that they can continue receiving their current salary, their hours of work and their benefits until a successor agreement can be negotiated with the new employer--that is, Hennepin County."

Seide says the union is willing to sit down and talk with the county anytime, anywhere. But county officials say if the union has an issue, it's with the city, not the county.

Commissioner Randy Johnson says the county didn't want to create a two-tiered pay scale for the merged library workers. He says if Minneapolis workers want something like that, they should be talking to their current employer.

Kit Hadley
Minneapolis Central Library Director Kit Hadley says if the library merger falls apart, some workers will lose their jobs.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"If the city wants to negotiate with its employees to come up with a package that would compensate them at a higher rate or sum of money that they negotiate with their exclusive bargaining representatives, the unions, and come up with that kind of package, well that's up to the city and its workers," Johnson said.

The city of Minneapolis and the city's library board have committed to a one-time payment to compensate city library workers for a loss of wages. But AFSCME's Seide says city employees can't take a promise to the bank. He worries that by pushing through a deal that doesn't at least on paper protect worker salaries, a troubling precedent for future public mergers is being set.

Library Director Kit Hadley says this back-and-forth over wages may put the merger in jeopardy.

"I have very serious concerns that this merger will be stopped over a principle," Hadley says, "when in fact each employee will either NOT be worse off or be better off, with a merger."

Hadley says if the merger fails, then some Minneapolis library workers will likely lose their jobs. That's because the system is strapped for cash. The board recently voted to close three branches and has no plans to reopen them. Hadley says if left on this tack, the city's libraries and library employees and patrons face a dire future.

"There will clearly have to be layoffs in one way or another. Either we close additional libraries or we cut the hours at the existing 12 libraries, which means that there are virtually no full-time public service jobs at the library any more," she says.

The sense of urgency that Hadley and other merger supporters feel is based on the timetable set by the Legislature. The state is required to pass a measure that authorizes the transfer of property, assets and bond proceedings from city to county. Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the author of the bill that permits the merger, says the state doesn't want to micro-manage a labor agreement and will wait until the parties can work something out. She says the clock is ticking.

"Well, nothing is ever over until we adjourn the session, but as a practical matter, they certainly are running out of time. These meetings and some sort of resolution--if they want this bill to move forward--really should take place before Friday," Rest says.

That's today. However, the author of the House version of the bill, Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, says his bill is moving through the House. But the whole thing is moot if the Senate bill stalls.

Library Director Hadley says more meetings with the union are planned for next week. And she's holding out hope that the Legislature will take up the merger on the last day of the session on May 21.

On Friday morning, the Minneapolis City Council will vote on a resolution that states the city's intent to find one-time money for library workers. The council will send a letter to legislators, urging them to pass the merger bill.