Cleveland Public Library Workers Could Go on Strike if Bargaining Session Goes South

click to enlarge SEIU and community members rally for library workers on Public Square, (12/13/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
Sam Allard / Scene
SEIU and community members rally for library workers on Public Square, (12/13/19).
Librarians, clerks, custodians and other front line staff at the Cleveland Public Library are this week bargaining with library leadership for higher wages and increased staffing levels across the system.

If an agreement is not reached after this week's sessions and an additional session planned for Dec. 27th, the nearly 400 workers who are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU 1199) could strike after their current contract expires at the end of the calendar year.

"It's a possibility," said Debbie Hajzak, a 30-plus year CPL veteran who now works in the outreach and programming department. "We're not at that point yet, but it's certainly something a lot of our members are thinking about."

Library staff and community members gathered at Public Square Friday evening to send a message to top administrators before bargaining began Monday. That demonstration followed a vigil held earlier this month at CPL's South Brooklyn Branch, where a 19-year-old was found with multiple gunshot wounds this summer.

Library safety is among the top-billed concerns. But for workers, it's just one area that has been affected by diminished staffing levels.

"The biggest issue is staffing," Hajzak said. "This is also certainly about wages, because our folks are far behind, and nobody can make it on the wages they were making in 2009. But there's more and more demand on library services. There's more and more people coming in, and the library's offering more and more things. But there's not more staff. We're just trying to come to the table and say, 'Look, if we're the people's university, we need to have people there.'"

click to enlarge SEIU and community members rally for library workers on Public Square, (12/13/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
Sam Allard / Scene
SEIU and community members rally for library workers on Public Square, (12/13/19).
In the background of the workers' demands is the recently passed library levy, which is set to take effect in 2020. Library Executive Director Felton Thomas and the board of directors have laid out ambitious plans to revitalize neighborhood branches with new state-of-the-art facilities. Workers had hoped to see a corresponding commitment to staff. 

"Some of the proposals [library leadership] has come to the table with would outsource our work," said Hajzak. "Others would have volunteers doing our work. We're this amazing institution, celebrating our 150th year, and administrators are talking about getting volunteers? That's not the high-quality service that CPL should be offering. This is skilled work. It's difficult work. And it's important work."

Even more frustrating for the library's union members is that when the State of Ohio started curtailing its investment in libraries in 2009, workers voluntarily entered a wage freeze and agreed to furlough days to help the system manage its budget. While many of them continue to be on wage freezes, the library has hired a slew of administrators who are earning big salaries with substantial annual raises and bonuses, and are routinely securing title upgrades to trigger even higher pay.

Hajzak said that while none of her colleagues entered the library profession to make "huge amounts of money," they nevertheless get irritated when top administrators keep taking home enormous salaries while producing limited results for the system.

"The picture from leadership a decade ago was 'we're all in the same boat, we're all going to sacrifice,'" she said. "But then while we were on wage freezes, they added top administrators, people making $145,000 walking in the door. And now they come to the bargaining table and tell us there's no money."

SEIU members noted that Felton Thomas, who makes a base salary of $220,000 with a guaranteed 5-percent raise every year, was just awarded a $10,000 "merit bonus" that was meant to recognize his years of service and to thank him, per his contract,  "for foregoing raises for the years 2010 through 2013."

"We never got a merit bonus for not taking raises," Hajzak said. She added that the focus should be on better libraries and she worried that leaders may have forgotten what libraries are all about.

"Nobody who comes into a neighborhood branch needs an administrator making a lot of money," she said. "They need somebody to help them learn computer skills, somebody to help them write a resume, somebody to help their kids do homework. That's the stuff that people come to the library for, but that's not where the administration has chosen to put the resources."

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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