Book poor

Jul 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

It was an unusual sight in normally serene Grosse Pointe. Cars honked and some passersby shouted words of support to 30 or so picketers who marched outside the Grosse Pointe Public Library last week. The picketers wielded signs that read, “Honk if you love your library staff,” and “Nice place to visit, bad place to work.”

The 31 librarians and support staff have been without union contracts since July 1, 2002. Library workers and patrons held the rally to raise awareness of the labor dispute. Library workers claim they are grossly underpaid and have inadequate health and pension benefits.

“We are the lowest-paid library staff and have the worst benefit package of comparable librarians in southeast Michigan,” says Diana Howbert, president of the Grosse Pointe Public Librarians Association, which represents 11 full-time librarians and one part-time librarian; the group is a member of Michigan Education Association Local 1. The other union without a contract is the Grosse Pointe Public Library Support Staff Association, which is also part of Local 1 and represents 19 maintenance and clerical workers.

“We want wages and benefits in line with employees at comparable metro area libraries, as well as school and municipal employees in our own community,” says Howbert, who has been a Grosse Pointe librarian since 1975.

A decade ago, the Grosse Pointe Public Schools operated the public libraries. The library employees were members of the school unions and received pay boosts and benefits along with teachers and other school staffers.

But a 1994 state statute prohibited school districts from raising taxes for non-school operations such as public libraries. Consequently, the Grosse Pointe School Board established and appointed members to the Grosse Pointe Library Board.

The Library Board has the same boundaries as the school district, which includes the five Grosse Pointe municipalities and part of Harper Woods. The main library on Kercheval Street and branch libraries in Grosse Pointe Park and Grosse Pointe Woods serve the district, about 55,000 people in all.

The unions say their wages and benefits have been slashed in the past decade as they negotiated contracts with the Library Board.

Grosse Pointe librarians hired in the past decade earn between $30,000 and $39,500, according to Howbert, who says there has been a high turnover of librarians, a condition she attributes to low wages and poor benefits. Since 1995, 11 librarians have left and been replaced, she says.

The salary range for area librarians was between $30,000 and $63,000, according to a compilation of 2002-2003 union contracts for 23 metro Detroit libraries.

The union wants new hires to earn $34,000 a year.

Board President John Bruce says he will not discuss specifics of contract negotiations, but adds that the Library Board offered a “substantial” pay increase to library staff compared to the previous contract, which ran from 1998 through 2002.

“The Library Board wants a fair and equitable contract,” says Bruce. “We think the best way to do that is to sit at the table and do that and we have been doing that.”

Some library staff members feel that the Library Board is unaccountable. The seven members are appointed and do not have term limits. Bruce has been on the board since its inception.

The union accuses the Library Board of wasting money on administrative costs. Some $136,000 in legal fees were paid the past three years to a former Library Board member who provided legal representation to the Board, according to a flier passed out at last week’s picket; the information was complied from Library Board meeting minutes and other sources, says Howbert.

The Library Board also paid a fund-raiser $310,000 from 1999 to 2003, according to the union flier.

Bruce says the fund-raiser raised enough to pay her own salary and took in an additional $1 million for the libraries.

An independent fact-finder who studied the labor dispute recommended in a report issued in May that some librarians should receive pay increases while others should not. He also recommended an increase in health and pension benefits for all library staff, according to the report.

Howbert says the report, which is nonbinding, reinforces the unions’ grievances for the most part.

Vicki Bloom, Grosse Pointe Public Library director, who is not a union member, believes a contract agreement will be reached.

“I think we are close to doing something, I hope,” says Bloom, who would not comment on the specifics of negotiations.

The report

Sue Steiger walks the picket line with her former co-workers. She left her job as a Grosse Pointe librarian in the late 1990s for a job at a Wayne County library for the blind and physically handicapped.

“I couldn’t afford to stay,” says Steiger, who is a single mom with two sons and was earning about $30,000 at the time.

Steiger says she participated in contract negotiations in 1998.

“I could see then they weren’t going to give us anything,” she says. “In fact, they were going to take things away.”

As a result of the 1998 contract, the two unions now must pay for family health care coverage, says Howbert.

The library contributes to employee pension plans only if the employee contributes a matching amount; only about half of the union members participate.

“My people can’t afford to contribute,” says Lynne Severini, president of the Grosse Pointe Public Library Support Staff Association

Unionists say uncompetitive wages and benefits mean workers don’t stay for long, and that harms the community.

“You need librarians who are knowledgeable about the collection and know the community’s needs,” says Steiger.

“There’s nothing like a librarian to open your eyes to the world,” says Fatima Ismail, 53, who grew up in Grosse Pointe and has been a library patron since she was child.

“I had my first library card here and first job here shelving books,” says Ismail, who joined the workers on the picket line.

So did Dave Allen, a Grosse Pointe Farms resident.

“I am infuriated over this,” says Allen, who touts the Grosse Pointe libraries as top of the line.

The unions asked William C. Schaub Jr., fact-finder with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), to help with negotiations by reviewing evidence both sides presented during a weeklong hearing. Schaub’s 56-page report concluded that some librarians are entitled to a substantial wage increases. The report stated that the library can and should increase workers’ health benefits.

“Clearly, the Library has significant cash and non-cash assets more than sufficient to meet petitioners’ demands,” wrote Schaub.

The Library’s total revenue for 2002 was about $4.5 million, and operating expenses were only $2.8 million, according to the report.

But the Library Board says the excess is being reserved to pay for projected remodeling and construction of two new libraries, according to the report.

Schaub based wage recommendations, in part, on whether an employee was hired before or after 1994.

After the reorganization a decade ago, some employees’ salaries were cut. Howbert and another longtime librarian earned about $71,000 in 1994, but now earn $65,000 and have not had a raise since 1997, according to the report.

Schaub concluded that though their compensation has not kept pace with inflation, longer-tenured workers “are paid well within or above the maximum ranges for comparable employees,” and are not entitled to a wage increase “at this time.”

Schaub found that the full-time pre-1994 support staff employees, who earn between $27,000 and $36,500, “are paid at or near the top of the maximum average salary for employees working at the other comparable libraries.” He recommended only a small pay increase totaling 3.4 percent through July 2006 for these workers.

The report concluded that all librarians hired after 1994 (nine in all) should receive pay increases.

Bruce says there has been a salary wage increase offered to the unions since the Schaub report.

Schaub also evaluated health care benefits. Employees currently receive $5,500 toward health care benefits. Schaub recommended the health care benefits go up to $7,500 a year starting in 2002, with an additional $500 each year.

Schaub concluded that the Library Board should increase pension contributions from 3 percent to 4 percent, according to the report. The union was disappointed, since its members had hoped for a base pension without employee contributions, says Howbert.

When the labor dispute will end is anyone’s guess. But there seems to be at least some agreement that the Library Board is at fault.

The Grosse Pointe News polled 700 voters about the Library Board. The May 28 results showed that 63 percent of the respondents were dissatisfied with the current Library Board and believed the members should be elected, not appointed.

Though Bruce also believes the library board should be elected, he doubts the accuracy of the poll.

“I think it was an interesting Internet poll and had little scientific basis,” he says.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer and can be reached at [email protected] or 313-202-8015.