Historic contract for Peoria library workers
Picket at the Peoria North Library branch. | AFSCME Local 3464 Facebook page

PEORIA. Ill. – Rose Farrell has worked at the library since she was 16. As a child, she dreamed of being a librarian and even plotted to hide in the bathroom to wait for the library to close so she could spend the whole night reading the endless number of books from the towering library shelves. For 12 years, she has been living that dream and checking the bathroom stalls before closing in case another child had the same idea.

For Farrell and many of her co-workers, working at the library isn’t just a job, it is a passion. It is a career worth fighting for because of the fulfillment it brings to themselves and the community.

Last month, library workers ratified a new contract that brought historic gains and established a new precedent for future contracts at Peoria Public Library. This contract was not given by the good graces of their administration, but by a long struggle that transcended the bargaining table. So what has made this contract negotiation different?

New and diverse leadership

At the start of 2022, a new class of union stewards was set to take over. It would be their responsibility to lead the union into a new era. Almost a complete turnover in this section of the union, the majority male, old guard leadership was replaced with a relatively younger rank, dominated by women and parents of young children. The experience of winning a new labor contract may have been absent, but the determination was certainly not. Among these new stewards was Farrell who told People’s World “We all came in swords blazing.”

This new leadership developed a culture of embracing a more family-oriented style of organizing. Not one member of the bargaining team shared the same wage and they immediately decided to prioritize taking care of those at the bottom of the wage gap. “We have employees who can’t afford to eat more than one meal a day, that are on government assistance, that are housing insecure,” said Farrell. “Our main thing was making sure everyone could put food on the table.”

Communication and setting expectation 

The process of negotiating a new contract started in the Spring of 2022. To prepare for the journey ahead, the bargaining team dove into combing through their old contract and labor-management meeting documents. Collectively, they became experts on the issues faced by workers throughout each department, in each building.

Fall of 2022, the union officially sent in its request to the libraries administration to begin the bargaining process. For weeks, they received no reply. It wasn’t until November that the first bargaining session was convened. After leaving, Farrell knew that it was going to be a long struggle to secure the needs of her co-workers. “There were a lot of things we were surprised we didn’t see eye to eye on.”

Not only were there differences in big-ticket items like wages, but the union had to take a lot of time to clarify simple issues directly related to the library’s day-to-day operations. “The administration does not work on the library floor the same way that the employees do. Explaining what we do on the floor and why we put it in the contract was a pretty lengthy process.”

From the start, the union broke the expectation that they would accept anything that resembled the bare minimum. For years the Peoria Public Library has gotten away with only offering a 1% or 2% raise to employees. Their consistent wage suppression had resulted in the Illinois State minimum wage surpassing what was in their old contract for the lowest-paid workers.

As the bargaining team dealt with a reluctant administration, the union began organizing its members for the long struggle ahead. More than any other previous contract negotiation, they kept their fellow workers informed on what was happening at the negotiation table with consistent bulletins and one-on-one conversations. “By the second month of bargaining, the workers realized this wasn’t going to be like previous contracts and the union was fighting for more than just the standard.”

Learning to flex their muscles

Dec. 31st, the expiration date of their old contract, passed and they were still nowhere near a tentative agreement. With a now-expired contract and the unbudging brick wall that is the library administration, the union needed to start flexing its muscles.

Two months after their contract expired, library workers gathered at the monthly board of trustees meeting to exert pressure on the administration. Workers who had never spoken publicly before this meeting fought their anxiety and fears to express why they deserve a fair contract.

In one interview, the President of AFSCME Local 3464 told People’s World “We have people who spoke tonight and last month that had never talked in a public meeting, marched on a picket line, or ever thought to exercise the power that they possess as a member of the working class.”

Not going alone, the union also brought a crowd of community supporters which created a standing-room-only situation with a sea of green facing the library board and administration. Farrell commented on how the workers felt about this, saying “They felt empowered…[and] overwhelming support seeing our patrons, community activists, and retirees come out to fill up that small room.”

Just one month later, the union was back, this time bringing an even bigger crowd. One hundred people gathered in front of the Main Branch Library for the March board meeting that was about to be held. Making up this rally were library workers; AFSCME members from across the city, county, and state; members of the Peoria Federation of Teachers; and patrons.

Community solidarity 

As a culture of “an attack on one is an attack on all” overtook Peoria, community organizations started working with the union to apply pressure on the administration. Change Peoria and Peoria CPUSA co-sponsored a campaign that garnered over 1,500 emails and 40 handwritten letters, delivered to the library board of trustees and city council. These emails and letters were not written solely by library workers, but also by members of prominent organizations such as the NAACP, ACLU, and Peoria NOW.

When the union and administration went into mediation in June of 2023, these same organizations gathered at an informational picket. It was a hot day, and the only shade provided was from a few small trees placed quite a distance from the center of the picket.

In a last-minute act of solidarity, Peoria CPUSA brought ice cream out to the picket to serve free to anyone brave enough to face the heat for three hours. Almost in disbelief, one woman stated “Communists serving ice cream!” and with a smile on her face, walked away eating her 3 Neapolitan scoops.

The power of the union

The union and administration were not brought closer by the mediation and the workers were left with a tough decision. On one hand, they could take a strike vote that, if successful, would automatically trigger a 10-day waiting period before the picket lines would start greeting local patrons. On the other hand, the union could keep the library and its important services running and go back to the bargaining table to try breaking that brick wall one last time.

Choosing the latter, the union headed back to negotiations and, a few weeks later, through hours of bargaining, achieved a tentative agreement. In a 41-6 vote, the union ratified the contract and, shortly thereafter, the board of trustees voted unanimously to ratify it on their end, giving the library workers a historic contract.

A few of the big wins for library workers included in this contract:

  • Raises: 5% the first year and 4% each year after
  • $500 Christmas bonus
  • Added holiday: Juneteenth
  • Sick leave now includes mental health days
  • Gender-neutral language was added throughout the contract
  • Parental leave now includes foster care and adoption
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Noah Palm
Noah Palm

Noah Palm writes from Peoria, Illinois.