Newly unionized Kalamazoo Public Library aides and custodians protest contract impasse

The contract talks covering a third of library workers are stuck on wages and hours.

A group of 60 part-time workers across the Kalamazoo Public Library system who unionized after being furloughed are protesting for higher wages and more hours.

The workers, who perform tasks like answering patron questions, stacking shelves, fixing equipment and changing light bulbs, say they want more hours instead of KPL hiring more part-time workers, and to be paid at least $15 an hour.

KPL declined a request to comment for this story or to answer questions sent by email, but stated that the library will continue to bargain in good faith and is eager to finalize a contract agreeable to all.

The workers make up nearly a third of KPL staff, according to the 2020 annual report. KPL has five branches and is a public institution that relies on local property taxes for 94 percent of its budget.

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On Monday, the Union of Kalamazoo Public Library Aides and Custodial Hourlies called for public attention outside the central branch in downtown Kalamazoo.

“They claim that they want part-time (work) to grow and to build, and to eventually become full-time … but clearly their policies aren’t showing it,” says Tiffany Kuriata, library aide at the KPL Eastwood Branch and bargaining team member. “We are just fighting for what they want.”

The union also says paying people too low a wage undercuts the library’s claims to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion within the institution, since low wages disproportionately impact historically marginalized communities.

The union says it is asking for a starting rate of $15 per hour but the library’s most recent proposal starts at $12, up from $10.55 per hour now. The minimum rate increases over the two years but has a ceiling at $12.73 per hour. The rate of the current highest paid of the 60 workers, at $12.80 per hour, does not increase, according to a proposed wage scale shown to NowKalamazoo.

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The bargaining team also wants to remove the cap that keeps aides from working over 20 hours per week and earning full-time benefits, and is also lobbying for hours of new vacancies to instead be distributed among current part-time staff. 

“I do love my job, but it’s not sustainable,” says Kuriata, who says they hope to have a career in library science but is considering leaving KPL.

Kuriata works a second job, as does fellow Eastwood library aide Jon Jerow. Both say they want more hours at KPL but Eastwood is instead hiring another part-time employee to work 12 hours a week.

Not all library aides are unhappy with part-time work, the bargaining team says, such as students who favor a flexible schedule and retired professionals who are looking to fill up their free time.

Library aide Liz Overhiser says the vast majority of aides are trying to live off of their salaries.

“I do want the library to be my career, and working as an aide, it feels like you’re an intern,” Overhiser says. “You are always waiting for your ‘real job’ to materialize.”

The process to unionize began in December 2020, when library aides and custodial staff say they were furloughed five days after a staff appreciation breakfast had taken place. The furlough continued until March 2021. In June, employees voted to unionize.

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