Library workers seek to unionize in Hillsboro
Hillsboro Public Library employees want to form a union, seeking to become the first collective bargaining unit among city employees aside from police and firefighters.
Hillsboro has two libraries — the Shute Park Library and the Brookwood Library — which are also part of Washington County Cooperative Library Services.
During public testimony at the Hillsboro City Council's meeting April 20, three library employees said a majority of library workers have signed union authorization cards to form a union with Oregon AFSCME Council 75, one of the largest public employee unions in the state.
They said forming a union would give them a greater voice in decision-making, which would allow them to improve the library by making it a more inclusive and equitable place.
They also asked the city to uphold its commitment to equity by voluntarily recognizing their union.
"We know that Hillsboro seeks to be the 'public's employer of choice,' and Hillsboro Public Library workers want to help the city achieve that goal," said Molly Vanoverhill, a page at the library. "In order for the organization to continuously improve and honor the city's commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, we as staff need a united voice in decision-making."
Urging the city to voluntarily recognize the library union, one library worker quoted President Joe Biden, who recently said it is the policy of his administration to encourage unionization efforts.
Katherine Knox, a librarian assistant, added that while she has seen organizations and businesses across the country try to retaliate against employees who try to unionize, she hopes Hillsboro does not.
On Monday, April 26, Biden signed an executive order creating a task force to promote labor organizing.
It's unclear whether the city intends to voluntarily recognize the union, however.
Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway didn't respond to an emailed request for an interview or comment on whether he thought it would be possible for the city to voluntarily recognize the union. He instead provided a statement through city spokesman Patrick Preston.
"I want to respect the process for collective bargaining, and the employees involved in this unionization effort," Callaway said. "This is a personnel matter and I recognize and appreciate our City management and Human Resources team's expertise and interest in complying with Oregon law."
In an additional statement, Preston said, "The City respects and recognizes public employees' 'right to form, join and participate in the activities of labor organizations of their own choosing for the purpose of representation and collective bargaining with their public employer on matters concerning employment relations,'" quoting Oregon's public employee laws.
Preston continued: "The City honors and will abide by the (Oregon Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act) process, which is for the benefit of both parties. The City will participate in good faith while employees exercise their choice."
The union effort has also been supported by Washington County Ignite, an organization seeking to empower people of color to become more influential in politics and decision-making throughout the county.
Lamar Wise, an AFSCME organizer and secretary of Ignite who also spoke at the City Council meeting, said Ignite sees labor organizing as a central part of the organization's goals.
"They want to take this opportunity to kind of push the city councilors a bit to be unapologetically pro-labor," Wise said of the library workers.
He said the workers who spoke at the council meeting didn't outline any concerns about working conditions at the library because they wanted their efforts to have a positive tone.
Eddie Charlton, another AFSCME organizer, said part of the strategy behind asking the city to voluntarily recognize the union is that workers are facing issues that add urgency to their efforts, and voluntary recognition from the city would expedite their ability to address such issues.
Charlton didn't specify what issues library workers are experiencing.
Workers at the meeting each told the Hillsboro City Council they love their work.
"We're all really passionate about our work there," said Hillsboro librarian Elena Gleason in an interview.
Gleason has worked at libraries in Oregon for the past nine years and at the Hillsboro Public Library for more than three years.
She said the Hillsboro Public Library is the most stressful library environment she has ever worked in.
"What a lot of patrons, who we love, don't see is that behind the scenes, the library is actually a really stressful work environment," Gleason said.
She said the library employees feel overworked and burnt out, which has led to high employee turnover and many unfilled positions. The work of unfilled positions doesn't go away, it gets shifted to existing employees, she added.
The workplace demands have led to longer wait times for library patrons and limited what programs and services the library is able to offer, Gleason said.
When employees have brought concerns to their supervisors' attention, the response has been to try to pacify the severity of the concerns rather than actually address the issues, she said.
Library workers wanted a say in when the library would reopen during the pandemic, Gleason said, adding that the library's reopening for some face-to-face services in June 2020 was one of the earliest in the state.
Gleason said the library's recent decision to reopen for in-person browsing in March put workers at unnecessary risk when the workers would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines soon after.
About the same time, Hillsboro selected Hillary Ostlund as the library's new director.
About 70% of an estimated 100 eligible library employees have signed union authorization cards, Charlton said.
According to Oregon collective bargaining laws, public employees don't need to show a majority of employees support the union through an official vote, needing only to show signed official union authorization cards to their employer, Charlton said.
Lisa Tattersall, manager of WCCLS, said the formation of a Hillsboro library workers union wouldn't affect the county system's relationship with the library, adding that library workers in Beaverton are already part of a union.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify how Callaway and city officials responded to questions from Pamplin Media Group.
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