Public Library Workers Claim Retaliation for Speaking Out, By: Judith Scherr Workers Claim Retaliation for Speaking Out
In a town where free speech is holy and libraries are sacred, library workers are claiming retaliation from management for speaking out about work-related issues.
Still, at the same time staff-management tensions are on the rise, the two sides are coming together to explore better ways to perform work at the library.
Service Employees International Union 535 has filed grievances on behalf of five workers claiming retaliation for protected union activities.
The union alleges that:
• Last year, North Branch teen librarian Debbie Carton was given permission by her supervisor to adjust her schedule so that she could attend the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) meeting where she planned to express concern about a reorganization plan. BOLT is an appointed five-member board that oversees that library.
When Library Director Jackie Griffin learned Carton was allowed flextime for this activity, Griffin instituted a blanket policy, disallowing flextime for staff to attend BOLT meetings.
• Last April, library staffer John Mathews was called to a meeting with two supervisors one week after having read a statement written on behalf of 24 circulation employees at a BOLT meeting. The statement alleged unsafe working conditions and an increased workload at the library.
Because the meeting with his supervisors was out of the ordinary, Mathews called on his shop steward to accompany him to the meeting; administrators, however, denied the steward access. As a consequence, steward Claudia Morrow received a written reprimand for her attempt to assist Mathews. Mathews and Morrow have filed grievances alleging retaliation against protected union activity and denial of a right to union representation.
• Library aide Avaan Gates-Williams wrote and circulated the circulation employees’ statement and, in the process, looked up the telephone numbers of several library employees in the confidential library database. Around the same time, she spoke on a KPFA radio labor show and before the BOLT regarding safety concerns at the library.
Gates-Williams’ grievance alleges management claimed that she compromised the confidentiality of her coworkers’ library records, despite having their permission to view the records. She says she was involuntarily transferred as a consequence.
• Library assistant Joseph Alvarez expressed concern about staff reduction, increased workload and unsafe working conditions at a staff meeting, to which a manager allegedly replied, “If you can’t work as hard as I do, maybe you shouldn’t be at the BPL.” Such statements are explicitly prohibited, according to SEIU 535.
Citing confidentiality rules, Director Griffin said she could not comment on the allegations.
“I’m obliged legally not to talk about these things,” she said. She did, however, note that the complaints come from only some among the 212 employees and don’t represent the diverse group as a whole.
“We’re not a monolith,” she said.
The tensions can be traced back to the library administration’s push for an expensive monitoring system—radio frequency identification—where tags are embedded in books so that patrons can use a machine to check them out themselves.
The union’s main concern was the $650,000 price tag, said Anes Lewis-Partridge, SEIU 535 senior field representative.
“The union believes that cuts at the library were used to pay for the RFID,” Lewis-Partridge said. The staffing cuts have led to an increased workload and safety concerns, she added.
“The union believes its outspoken members are being retaliated against,” she said.
On Feb. 3, Lewis-Partridge wrote a letter to the mayor and City Council outlining instances of alleged retaliation. Lewis-Partridge said that because the council, in principle, appoints the Board of Trustees (in practice, the board has appointed new members and the council has approved the board’s choices) that the union believes the council can have some influence over the labor conflict at the library.
But Trustee Chair Susan Kupfer said she thinks the union’s publicizing the grievances is ill-timed.
“It’s unfortunate coming now that all the different groups in the library are coming together,” she said.
Kupfer, who has been a trustee for two and a half years, was referring to a new ad hoc committee, consisting of library staff and management, which met Wednesday for the first time. She lauded the work of the committee, which, at its first session, prioritized ten concrete work-related library issues and began to address the first one.
Kupfer said it was premature to speak publicly about what the issues are that the committee will address. She noted that the board is active on other levels in trying to reduce tensions at the library.
“All board members are active in the community talking with community members and different groups in the library,” she said.
Andrea Seagall, library shop steward, summed up the ultimate goal of the library workers: “It’s really about getting our library back, about providing services to the people of Berkeley.”
Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense will hold an “Informational/Protest Picket” regarding the Radio Frequency Identification Device chips in Berkeley Library materials on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the main library at 2090 Kittredge St. to coincide with the library’s Authors’ Dinner.›