June 21, 2023

Waukegan Public Library workers win stronger rights in first contract

For the new AFSCME members at the Waukegan Public Library (WPL) in Chicago’s northern suburbs, the first chapter in the story of their union ends on a high note: They’ve won a first contract guaranteeing them a strong voice on the job and fair wages that reflect how valued they are in their community.

Working under a new library administration in early 2020, arbitrary new rules hampered their ability to do their jobs. Job duties were frustratingly inconsistent and could change at the drop of a hat. Under the new library administration, the number of staff shrank from 70 to just 35 in the span of a year.

The mass exodus of respected, experienced staff sounded the alarm for WPL workers. They knew that if they wanted to keep serving the community they know and love, they needed a stronger voice. They knew they needed a union.

Rosario Colin, a children’s reference assistant and a member of the AFSCME bargaining committee, said WPL workers began organizing to reclaim the voice they had lost under the new administration.

“We were going up against an administration that didn’t hear us and didn’t see us. They treated us like cogs in a machine,” Colin said. “They didn’t care about the history that we had with the library and the impact we made as individuals.”

WPL workers organized and their union was officially certified with AFSCME Council 31 in December 2021. The union represents 38 library clerks, specialists, assistants, associates, coordinators and librarians.

As they began bargaining their first contract in spring 2022, one of their priorities was to establish a grievance process through which they could settle disagreements with management. Another was to make sure wages were fairly and equally distributed—something that hadn’t always been done in the past.

The contract they ultimately ratified in May accomplishes that and more.

Without a union, raises used to come sporadically or not at all. Under their new union contract, they’ll be placed on a step plan that immediately boosts the entire bargaining unit’s pay by a minimum of 7% and raises and cost-of-living adjustments are guaranteed in each year of the contract.

“Now we have a safety net. We have a voice and people who are looking out for us,” said Vanessa Harris, a reference associate who has worked at the WPL for 15 years. “And we’ve built this union not just for us, but for everyone who walks through these doors in the future.”

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