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Labor dispute threatens regional library services

Strike is an option if sides can’t resolve differences

David Colburn
Posted 10/27/21

REGIONAL- Patrons of services provided by the regional Arrowhead Library System could see those services disrupted by an ongoing labor dispute that could lead to a strike if union members vote down …

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Labor dispute threatens regional library services

Strike is an option if sides can’t resolve differences


REGIONAL- Patrons of services provided by the regional Arrowhead Library System could see those services disrupted by an ongoing labor dispute that could lead to a strike if union members vote down the latest contract offer on Oct. 29.
While ALS, a seven-county regional library system, has expanded and diversified its offerings in recent years by adding numerous online resources and collections, people-intensive services such as Mail-a-Book and the Bookmobile, as well as ongoing support of programming in local public libraries, rely on the work of front-line staff.
AFSCME Council 65 represents the members of Local 3258, which includes all but four of the employees who work at the ALS headquarters in Mt. Iron. Staff members have been working under a contract that expired at the end of 2019, and now members are set to vote on what AFSCME Council 65 labor representative Amanda Metsa said is a “last and final offer” from the ALS administrative negotiating team.
“They’re saying this is as far as they’re coming,” Metsa said. “We engaged the services of the Bureau of Mediation Services, which is a state agency that offers mediation to unions. So, we have been working with a mediator and have gone through multiple kinds of steps and phases of negotiations. And rather than continuing those negotiations and trying to work through our disagreements, the employer has opted, through the mediator, to offer us this last and final offer.”
If members don’t ratify the contract offer, a strike isn’t inevitable, Metsa said, but it is an option available to them.
“We’re not out there looking for a strike,” Metsa said. “Nobody wants to go on a strike unnecessarily. Our hope is that if the members choose to reject the offer that there will be further conversation, but ultimately we will defer to the Bureau of Mediation Services in terms of next steps.”
With a nationwide shortage of labor, unions have increasingly been flexing their collective muscles through the use of strikes. Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker has tallied at least 176 strikes in 2021, including 17 this month.
“There are workers who are standing up all over the country and striking in numbers we haven’t seen in a long time,” Metsa said. “If it happens, it’s about settling the contract in a way that is fair, that’s about protecting union rights, and about protecting the library system and the work and the jobs they love.”
Executive Director Jim Weikum has been with ALS for 29 years, and he said in an interview on Oct. 19 that he not only works alongside his union employees, he hired all of them. If the contract isn’t approved on Oct. 29, Weikum also hopes a strike can be averted through further mediation.
“My hope is that through the efforts of the mediator that we continue to communicate,” Weikum said. “I would like to believe that the gap between the sides isn’t insurmountable. I think we can get there, but we need to continue to take advantage of the mediator. They have a very real skill set, and we should continue to use them as best we can.”
Negotiation delays
Weikum said he believes this is the longest that his staff has worked without a new contract, due to the mere logistics of coordinating busy schedules of the negotiating parties and the impact of COVID-19.
Negotiations began in early December of 2019, mere weeks before an existing three-year agreement was set to expire.
“We got a late start,” Weikum said. “And to be honest, getting everybody’s schedules aligned is always a trick. It’s not unusual that we can go a month and possibly more between meetings because the union’s negotiator and our negotiator are extremely busy, as both of them have multiple clients and groups that they work with. I don’t think it surprised anybody that we went into January.”
And with negotiations still in their infancy at that time, the start of the coronavirus pandemic March complicated things even more.
“That really threw a wrench into the process, and there were significant delays, particularly in the spring and in the early part of summer because there was no way to physically meet,” Weikum said.
And while months often passed between negotiating sessions, Weikum said those lapses weren’t intentional on the part of either side.
“I would not want to characterize it as either side trying to slow it down or taking their time,” he said. “There were a lot of extenuating circumstances that just really had this go on for a long time.”
Primary issue
While many public sector organizations have a step-based compensation schedule for positions, ALS does not. The old contract specifies hourly wage rates for each union position for each of the three years the contract was in effect. As a new contract has yet to be approved, employees have been locked in at the 2019 rate.
Metsa said the union’s goals involved more than simple compensation.
“We are discussing a wage schedule,” she said. “But for the employees who are making this decision, it’s not just about wages, it is about working condition in some way, because to them it’s about being able to recruit and retain co-workers who are as dedicated as they are. It’s about more than what their paychecks look like, it’s about the health of the library system.”
The financial health of the system is also of concern to Weikum in a time when supporting public revenue streams haven’t kept pace with the growth in expenses.
“Our agency is funded through a combination of a state appropriation and dollars provided by our seven participating counties. It has been well over a decade since the Legislature added any funds to the appropriation for the 12 regional public library systems, including ALS,” Weikum said. “ALS has also been working with individual counties to secure increased funding, but it is a slow process and a challenging one as counties face their own budgetary challenges. It is indeed a challenge to run an agency in 2021 at 2010 funding levels.”
But Metsa maintained that budget concerns weren’t as influential in the administration’s decision-making as were the results of a wage comparability study by Bjorkland Compensation Consulting, of Minneapolis, in February 2020.
“They didn’t make a claim that their expenses are out of control, they made a claim that their staff are overpaid,” Metsa said.
Metsa said that union negotiators haven’t seen the actual wage compensation study, but have tried to propose a wage step system that establishes fair compensation rates for current employees while also remaining competitive for attracting the type of qualified new hires that can maintain the quality services expected from ALS.
Metsa said the proposals from administration, which reflect the findings of the wage compensation study, would have lower, less attractive starting wages for new employees, and that the proposal to be voted on by members actually includes wage decreases for three positions currently held by union members.
Weikum had a different interpretation of what the wage comparability study found.
“The takeaway for me was that we identified a handful of positions within the unit that really were under-compensated,” he said. “So, a cornerstone of our proposals has been to try and adjust the focus to make additional adjustments to those positions. At the same time, our proposals have always included a wage increase for every position.”
The “last and final” offer delivered to the union by the mediator is one Metsa said represented little movement by management across the two years of negotiations.
“The negotiating committee of this local has been extremely creative in thinking about these problems and about how they can come up with solutions that may be acceptable, and the employer has essentially held fast to their proposal and not made a lot of movements. The employer in September emailed us the last and final offer, which for our process means that we have to take this to a vote of our membership, to accept or reject the offer and move forward towards authorizing a strike. You don’t get to that point where both sides are having open communications.”
When the Timberjay asked Weikum about the impact of a strike on ALS services, he said the ALS Board of Directors had just directed him to put together a scenario regarding that possibility, and that he couldn’t yet say what the specific impacts might be.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t comment – I just don’t have the answer yet,” he said. “But it would be a significant barrier to providing services. A lot of what we do here is virtual, the technology in the background, and I think we can keep that running. But beyond that, we’re just starting to talk about what our game plan would be. There are only four of us here who aren’t in the union. What do we think we can continue and what do we think we can’t? That’s where the internal discussions are going now.”


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