Heart and soul of every library are the workers
On Feb. 21 a sea of green packed the room at a Peoria Public library Board of Trustees meeting. More than 50 union workers are currently working without a contract. | Noah Palm/PW

PEORIA, Ill. – “I love my job. I love seeing kids light up when we have that book his friend told him about or seeing the proud smile of a patron that comes in and tells me they got the job they were applying for on one of our computers,” said a librarian in a letter read by their union steward at a Library Board of trustees meeting here earlier this week.

To many here, the library is a staple of our community. Not only a place to check out your favorite books, but Peoria Public Libraries also offer fascinating book clubs, engaging story times, and crafts for kids. Adult services such as career guidance and driver practice tests are also provided.

“At the very center of each library are the workers who make every service possible. “My children love the library because they are welcomed by staff who know them by name,” one community member told the trustees.

Being a librarian is more than a job

Being a librarian is a chosen career that brings fulfillment in serving your community. One staff member recounted her own childhood library experiences starting in preschool: “I still remember the excitement of signing my first library card at the front desk at the Main Branch Library. The ladies at the front desk were just as excited as I was. When I look back at my childhood, I can see that it wasn’t the buildings but the librarians and staff at Peoria Public Library that made it a magical place to me as a kid.”

On Feb. 21, a sea of green packed the room of a Peoria Public Library Board of Trustees meeting as 50 AFSCME workers clad in their union t-shirts were joined by community members who have rallied behind the union during a prolonged contract negotiation. More than 50 union workers are currently working under no contract at the city’s libraries. Even though negotiations started well before the start of the new year, a new agreement has yet to be reached.

During the Board of Trustees meeting, union stewards read letters written by  Library employees that highlighted the untenable situation workers face. The wages provided by the expired contract no longer correspond to the inflation challenges of today’s economy, they say. “My qualifications are modest but not insignificant,” said one librarian with a library science undergraduate degree and five years of experience. “I have these qualifications and yet I only make $13 an hour – the minimum wage in Illinois.”

It feels like drowning

“It feels like drowning. I eat only one meal a day because I can’t afford groceries…no amount of budgeting or frugality can make up for the fact we do not make a living wage…No one goes into this field expecting to be rich but no one goes into this field expecting to live below the poverty line.”

“Between commute and work hours, I am only home to see my children two and half hours a day,” reported another worker in a letter read by their union steward. They stated that every month they have to dip into their savings to cover the increased cost of living.

The letters accompanied responses to a survey about current work conditions sent to members by AFSCME Local 346. Over 90% of library workers said they were living paycheck to paycheck. Walraven also said that a majority of workers reported they are housing insecure and that “An unacceptable amount were on government assistance.” This survey exposes what is at stake for many of the employees at the Peoria Public Library. Walraven said, “This is life or death for many of them.”

A declaration at the board meeting read by Rose Farrell on behalf of  the union stewards stated: “The state of negotiations between the library and its AFSCME employees has us feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and concerned for the future of the library.” She challenged the trustees and all those in attendance to compare the wages of library workers to those of other city workers in the same union.

Despite having the same employer, other city employees make several dollars an hour more. Farrell noted that “historically, librarianship was seen as a female profession and a way for women to make some extra income. Times have changed and it’s no longer a job for women or just a ‘job’ – it’s a career. Our wages need to keep up with the changes in time.”

AFSCME Local 3464 members working for other city departments, ratified their contract on Jan. 24. They had shown up in force at the Peoria City Council meeting last November to voice their grievances. Like the conditions of workers at the library, their grievances also concerned low pay, lack of staff, and long hours.

At that time, as the city workers were voicing their grievances, the mayor and council members were fresh off a celebration of having a good financial outlook. With a surplus in the budget, the city council approved allocations to various different places.

With over 90% of library employees living paycheck to paycheck, the union is asking why isn’t the library included in the conversation when a surplus is being discussed? “Why isn’t our administration fighting for what we deserve instead of making up for lack of funds by punishing staff?” said Farrell.

None of the eight Library Board trustees responded to a People’s World request for comment.

The library staff is tired of being exploited by their administration. Seth Peterson, a reference assistant at the Lincoln Brand Library, was nervous about public speaking but he said that this was too important of an issue. “I love my job but I will not sit idly by and say nothing when my leadership attempts to exploit that love as an excuse to pay me less.”


Noah Palm
Noah Palm

Noah Palm writes from Peoria, Illinois.