Contract talks between union, library go quiet
STAMFORD — It’s a negotiation for the books, unionized workers for The Ferguson Library say.
Diverging from the amiable history of contract talks between library management and members of Council 4 AFSCME, the parties will take their differences to state mediation Wednesday, Local 1303-317 President Carolyn Aucella said.
At issue is a nearly 30 percent reduction in retirement benefits that will cost library workers $5,000 to $11,000 a year, Aucella said. Library management also wants to reduce paid time off and increase workers’ contributions to health-insurance premiums.
“In the past we’ve been able to work out the differences of our contract proposal, and we always had a sense that we were working together. It sounds Pollyanna, but it always started as that,” said Aucella, a library assistant taking part in her fourth negotiation. “Now, though, things are at an impasse.”
This contract is more difficult than one negotiated during the Great Recession a decade ago, she said.
“At that time we knew layoffs were possible, but we banded together, we took furlough days, we worked at other branches to fill in, we held each other up so no one lost their job,” said Aucella, who’s worked at the library for 30 years. “This time it feels like they’re saying, ‘If you don’t want to work here, you don’t have to.’ They haven’t told us that, but that’s how it feels. The team feeling is gone.”
Ferguson Library President Alice Knapp would not discuss the talks.
“Due to the upcoming mediation with library personnel, the library will have no comment on the pending negotiations,” Knapp said in an email. “We look forward to resolving all issues.”
A call Tuesday to the library’s labor lawyer, Daniel Murphy of Kainen Escalera & McHale, based in Hartford, was not returned.
The library used to handle contract negotiations internally, Aucella said.
“The former HR director had labor law experience, but he retired in January 2017,” she said. “Our contract expired in June 2018, so this is the first time we are dealing with an outside attorney.”
The library’s attorney canceled negotiation sessions in January, February and March, and then declared an impasse, said Larry Dorman, public affairs coordinator for Council 4 AFSCME.
“Clearly, retaining an outside firm to handle the negotiations has thrown the process off track. It’s put something in between management and the rank-and-file workforce,” Dorman said. “It’s definitely different from previous negotiations.”
“It’s a new ingredient,” Aucella said.
According to the most recent contract, salaries in 2017 ranged from $35,521 for a first-year “general staff” job to $81,238 for a librarian II at the top of the pay scale. The average Ferguson employee earns about $55,000, Dorman said.
The average salary in Stamford last year was $70,091, according to PayScale.com.
Ferguson workers are employed by the library, not the city. The library is a separate entity that this year received $8.4 million from taxpayers for its operating budget. To cover its remaining expenses, the library raises revenue, solicits donations, and applies for grants.
“They want to reduce sick time and hit us twice a year with increased insurance premiums,” Aucella said. “We are looking at making less than we make now. We live in Fairfield County, Connecticut — one of the most expensive communities around. Everybody needs their money.”
Aucella said she hopes the sides can reach a settlement “that causes the least financial harm” to people who do library work, which she said is “a certain kind of vocation” requiring a desire to help — in person and across the digital divide.
“We help people write reports, contact companies, look up facts. We have conversation groups for foreign speakers that are hugely popular. We have book and film discussions, book-and-author talks. It’s as busy as a community center,” Aucella said. “The world is changing and the library is changing along with it. The foot traffic is less, but we are doing very well helping people access information on their electronic devices, and downloading books and films.”
Wednesday’s session with the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration will be “an attempt to foster a settlement,” Dorman said. “If that doesn’t work, the two sides go to binding arbitration with the state. That can take several months. We hope we can find common ground.”