Photograph by Steven Higgs

MCPL union organizers Kathy Starks-Dyer and Phil Eskew say the library employees' decision to unionize was about the future, not about the former director. Workers will now have a permanent voice in library decisions that impact their lives.

Kathy Starks-Dyer and Phil Eskew could be understandably smug about the resounding Monroe County Public Library (MCPL) employee vote on Earth Day to unionize. The “business-model” types whose management philosophy has dominated decision making at the community institution in recent years were anything but subtle in their anti-union sentiments.

Former MCPL Board of Trustees President Stephen Moberly expressed dismay back in the winter that the resignation of former director Cindy Gray didn’t end the union movement. He thought the staff would be so enamored with Interim Director Sara Laughlin that all from the contentious Gray era would be forgotten, and they would drop the idea.

The board went so far as to post notice of a behind-closed-door session during which, three days before the April 22 union vote, they would discuss making Laughlin’s appointment permanent. Under President John Walsh and Vice President Fred Risinger, the board learned from their attorneys that they did not meet the 48-hour notification requirement for a closed meeting and canceled it.

So, following a 62-35 vote to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), union organizing committee members like Eskew and Starks-Dyer could easily gloat. But they’re not. They’re looking ahead.

“I want to make this the best it can be, now,” Eskew said of the first contract union employees will negotiate with the board.

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Starks-Dyer said many issues figured into the decisions of those who voted for the union.

“It depends on who you ask,” she said during an interview on the Laughing Planet patio.

The paltry-to-zero MCPL raises in recent years, while other public employees in the community received average to above-average pay hikes, played a role, she said. Likewise the changing work environment and managerial attitudes that eschewed transparency and encouraged favoritism.

And then there were the recent changes and proposed changes in retirement benefits. They didn’t affect many workers, Starks-Dyer said. But employees discovered that nothing was off the table.

Eskew agreed, adding changes to the library health plan as another issue that impacted worker votes. He noted that one board member intervened on the employees’ behalf when the board proposed changes to the plan.

“If that board member hadn’t been there, the plan would have been less favorable,” Eskew said, without naming MCPL Trustee Randy Paul. “That person might not be on the board in the future.”

And that, he said, was perhaps the biggest issue, that the workplace issues that developed under Gray’s tenure could happen at anytime. Employees understood that Laughlin, who recently got high marks in employee surveys, wouldn’t be there forever.

The union vote, Eskew said, empowered employees with a “permanent voice” in the MCPL decision-making process.

“This was not just about Cindy Gray,” he said.

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Citing American voting habits nationwide, Eskew pointed to another aspect of the MCPL union vote with pride. More than nine of every 10 eligible library employees at the downtown and Ellettsville library branches -- 91 percent -- voted.

“That’s something we feel very good about,” he said.

Now they must turn their attentions to organizing the union, which includes several steps before contract negotiations can begin.

According to AFSCME literature, MCPL workers who signed “member/petition” cards -- about half the eligible employees, Eskew said -- will elect temporary officers for president, vice president and secretary.

Under their leadership, employees will then create a “constitution” that must be approved by the AFSCME “international president” for recognition as a local. Official officers will then be elected, and the MCPL local will be ready to negotiate.

Public employee unions in Indiana must be open shops, meaning workers do not have to join, Eskew said. Salary and work agreements negotiated will apply to all workers.

Non-union members, though, would not have the benefit of union support during any disciplinary or other dispute with library management.

Starks-Dyer said AFSCME has a progressive, "fair-share" dues schedule under which employees pay according to their salaries and other factors. It is estimated that monthly dues will average $30.

Starks-Dyer and Eskew say there is obviously a lot of work ahead, but for now they aren’t pushing the schedule. Organizing committee members have not met.

“Since election, we’ve hardly looked at each other,” Starks-Dyer joked.

She believes that the union is going to enhance library operations and help mitigate the tensions that have erupted in recent years.

“We all have the same goal,” she said.

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Eskew followed up the interview with an e-mail emphasizing the union's and library's roles in democratic terms.

“What I'm most excited about is that we will now have a true democracy at the library," he wrote. "Prior to the union election, we were experiencing a situation wherein all decisions relevant to employees' wages, benefits, and working conditions were being made by the board and the director. We are now on a path that will put a contract in place that ensures guaranteed staff participation in these discussions via union representation."

He also addressed the business-model approach to library management.

“It's important to remember that the public library is not a business, but rather that it's a public institution providing a vital public good," he said. "We are more than a place to check out popular print and AV titles. We're a community meeting space and a hub for civic discussions of vital interest to the citizens of Monroe County."


Read Phil Eskew's full comments

Public and private entities, Eskew said, serve different purposes.

"A library serves the public good, and there are significant differences in the fundamental missions of libraries and businesses," he said.

Business's mission is to "give 'em what they want," he said. "… This is not to say that we shouldn't have popular materials in the library, but we cannot simply look at ourselves as a ‘popular materials library.’"

Steven Higgs can be reached at .