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Peterson: Further clarification of library negotiation issues

Guest Columnist
Friday, December 5, 2014

As one of the union negotiators, I’d like to respond to Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Beppie Huidekoper’s Dec. 2 commentary on the current contract negotiations between library staff and the University.

The union is not, as she states, asking Brown “to commit to having no fewer than the current number of union positions into the future.” Over the past three months of negotiations, we have worked hard to adapt our staffing proposal in order to recognize the University’s position as well as our own job security. We are not looking for quotas or minimum staffing. As stated in our union proposal, what we are asking is that the University “make a good faith effort to address the Library’s ongoing staffing needs and include the bargaining unit in new library work to respond to changing user needs such as electronic collections, journals and search tools.”

We are making this proposal for two main reasons. First, we believe that because of the Library’s decision to fill only selected bargaining unit positions, particular departments are now seriously understaffed, inhibiting patron access to their resources and services. And second, we feel that the Library needs to make a commitment to its current staff by considering them for newly created jobs that arise from new library operations.

Regarding the first reason, we are experiencing an unsettling trend in library hiring policy: Vacated bargaining unit jobs in public service and security areas are either left unfilled or reduced to shorter schedules. Rockefeller Circulation relies on extensive staff overtime of 23 hours per week in addition to extra hours worked by part-time staff to cover all shifts at the main desk.

A recently vacated full-time job has been reduced to 75 percent time. While book circulation may have dropped 30 percent since 2007, Circulation staff duties continue to include course reserve and equipment lending, BorrowDirect and In-Rhode transaction and fielding many of the questions and situations that arise in the absence of a full-time door guard or Reference staff.

When describing the “decline in both union and non-union library staff,” Huidekoper calls our attention to “the actual number of union positions” but omits these numbers. Since 2006, the library has lost 30 union jobs but only six non-union jobs. Despite all the technological change in our field, only one new bargaining unit position was created during that time.

Regarding the second reason for our proposal, I recently marked my 30th year of employment at Brown, yet I am by no means the most senior of my library colleagues, some of whom have worked here for more than 40 years. This collective longevity speaks not only to the commitment the library staff has made to the University but also to the depth of experience and the measure of flexibility that we have already developed during our years at Brown. I joined the library staff in 1984, and my responsibilities have grown from filing catalog cards and typing bindery slips to creating MARC bibliographic records and XML-encoded finding aids. My experience is not unique; each one of my coworkers has a similar story of adapting and learning as his or her job has changed.

We would like to continue our professional growth, but we need room to do this. Instead of looking to the outside to meet the evolving staff needs of the library, the administration should cultivate the staff it already has. While we progress in our negotiations on professional development opportunities, we also envision where such development will take us in our library careers.

In addition to our staffing proposal, there are several other unresolved issues, most notably the health care premium contribution. Since January, our contribution percentage has already risen by 3 percent, the latest increase occurring Oct. 1 when we began paying 12 percent of the cost of the premium. Because we are a bargaining unit, we must agree on one rate for all of our members. Some of our members at the lower end of the salary grid would qualify for a lower rate that we currently pay.

The changes that the library now faces are driven by choices — the administration can choose to respond to them in a way that respects the commitment its staff has made to the University. We don’t understand how their decision in this negotiation to take back our longstanding staff benefits responds to the changing needs of the Library community. We would like to work with them toward an agreement that serves changing user needs as well as the welfare of our members.

Deborah Peterson MA’83 is a senior library specialist in technical services.

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