Labor-state surprise: You're in AFSCME now!

A surprise was in store for Scott County (MN) librarians after the library board turned over operational control last year to county commissioners. That non-controversial move, approved by the state Legislature, removed legal responsibilities from the library board, while retaining its sovereignty on intellectual-freedom decisions.

But it also appears the switch in authority was enough to prompt Scott County’s largest union to stake a claim on library employees. After the switch in library authority was made, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) asked the state Bureau of Mediation Services to add library staff to its ranks.

The state agency is charged with resolving questions of labor union representation and bargaining unit structure. On Dec. 13, three days after receiving the petition, the bureau made a ruling, certifying most library staff as part of AFSCME Local 2440. The approximately 41 library staff impacted by the decision got no say in the matter.

Librarians, who hadn’t asked to be unionized, were caught off guard when contacted by the county human resources department about the union’s request.

"People vary in their feelings quite a bit," library Director Vanessa Birdsey said of the unionization.

What happened

Opinions differ on whether the library staff could have been obliged to join the union before.

The union local previously included library employees among the categories of staff excluded from membership, such as members of other unions and essential, confidential and supervisory employees. The bureau amended the union membership description by deleting "employees of the Scott County Library Board" from the exempted category. Feelings vary among county library staff about being forced to join AFSCME union Local 2440.

County employee relations Director Jack Kemme said the possibility of unionization was known when the County Board decided to take legal control of the library system. But apparently not everyone was aware.

Birdsey said the unionization move surprised most of her staff. It will affect about 41 part-time or full-time staff. Another 20 to 25 people, like book shelvers and substitute drivers, who work fewer than 15 hours per week and are considered intermittent employees, will not become part of the union. Birsdey, because she is a supervisor, and an employee who runs computer systems, due to access to confidential data, will also be excluded.

Birdsey and County Commissioner Barbara Marschall of Prior Lake said since the librarians are public employees and paid by the county, they thought the library staff has always been eligible for unionization.

Birdsey said she was the only staff member who was considered an actual employee of the library board. She is now a division employee of the county.

Marschall, a liaison to the library board, said to her knowledge unionization has never been brought up as a discussion item, but she thinks it’s always been out there as a possibility.

Similarly, Birdsey said she has never been aware of a move by library staff to unionize.

However, she said most librarians in other metro counties are union members.

At least one other library system — Anoka County’s — has non-union employees.

Since the library staff has always been county employees, Birdsey doesn’t fully understand why the switch in legal authority, which actually has little effect on library operations, would have prompted the unionization petition.

Steven Hoffmeyer, a hearing officer with the Bureau of Mediation of Services, said the library staff was always considered public employees and therefore would have been viewed the same under state laws governing unions.

In the eyes of the AFSCME, however, the switch made it possible to compel library staff to join.

In Carver County, where the library board maintains authority over operations, librarians are part of a union. The board has fought a similar move by its county commissioners to assume control over the library system. (The Scott County library board did not oppose the measure here).

No choice

Scott County joined in the unionization petition request with AFSCME Minnesota Council 5, county employee relations Director Kemme said, because it had no legal standing to oppose the decision.

Kemme said no argument could be made that library staff didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the union, which already represents the county’s professional staff, along with other employees like bus drivers and clerical workers.

Hoffmeyer said the bureau was obligated to approve the request since it wasn’t opposed by the county.

"We have the authority under the law to validate and authorize it," he said.

Had the county not gone along with the petition, Hoffmeyer said, library staff would have had a chance to vote on whether it wanted to unionize.

Opposing the measure would have been futile, however, Kemme said, based on previous experience.

"We didn’t want this to happen. We know the librarians aren’t jumping up and down [about the unionization]," he said, "but we had no [legal] grounds to oppose it."

The county lost its fight when AFSCME petitioned in December 2006 to unionize its court probation staff, which became employees of Scott County with the shift to a community corrections system here.

Probation employees strongly opposed unionization, prompting a hearing by the state bureau, but they were required to join the union under collective-bargaining provisions because they fit the category of employees the union represented, Kemme said.

He believes the legal situation is the same with the library.

"We don’t want employees to necessarily be forced into something they don’t want to do, but in this scenario, the Bureau of Mediation takes a very strong stance if employees become eligible for inclusion," he said.

Of the county’s nine unions, AFSCME is the largest, representing probably 55 percent of county staff, Kemme said.

Because a bargaining unit already existed for the majority of the county’s other technical, clerical and professional staff, the library staff was compelled to also become part of the union, when the shift in library authority made it eligible for inclusion, explained AFSCME metro area field director Jerry Serfling said

Except for the director, the library staff was already employees of the county.

Thoughts differ on whether the union could have forced the membership of library staff before, Kemme said, but he thinks if the union could have, it would have.

Library employees say they still have many questions about what it will mean to become part of the union. For instance, they want to know when they must start paying dues (and how much they are) and whether they will also be asked to strike if current contract negotiations fail.

Serfling said the union will be meeting with librarians to explain the unionization process and to learn their representation needs. He said the union didn’t meet with the library employees before because it couldn’t have access to their addresses until after the bureau made them part of the union.

A full-time library employee who joins the union will pay roughly $38 per month in dues, he said. Those who pay less in dues can’t vote, but are still represented by the union.

Serfling said the union will talk to library employees about possibly including them in the labor contract that currently is under negotiation. If negotiations aren’t successful, striking would be voluntary for union members, he said.

In the past, the county has largely modeled library staff’s salary and benefits after what was negotiated in the union contract.

That is why associate librarian Theresa Coyer thinks being required to join the union and pay dues is fair.

"We’re reaped the benefits, but never paid in," she said.

Of four librarians contacted by the Shakopee Valley News for this story, one declined to share her opinion, and another who was initially critical of proposed unionization said she was still awaiting more details about it and two said they support unionization.

Coyer knows not all of her co-workers are happy about being forced to join the union. But at least now library workers will have a vote and say in matters that were affecting them anyway, she said.


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