Peoria library workers don’t want to live in poverty
Last February, workers met to discuss how they must have a contract. The same workers are holding informational picket lines now. | Noah Palm/PW

PEORIA, Ill. – “We have a city that says its library system has to be predicated on working-class people living in poverty.” said Anthony Walraven, Vice President of AFSCME Local 3464 in a crowd of union workers and community supporters on March 21. “There’s hope…When working people get together in solidarity with each other there is literally nothing on earth we can not accomplish”.

The chants of over 100 workers echoed in the streets of downtown Peoria as they came together in front of the Main Branch Library. Marching up and down the sidewalk to the beat of solidarity, workers and their supporters constructed an informational picket as the second action in what is becoming a drawn-out contract negotiation between Peoria Public Library and its workers.

Don’t want to live in poverty

Gray Baker, a cataloger for the last three years, is one of more than 50 workers under no contract at Peoria Public Library. They had just cataloged 113 items before standing shoulder to shoulder with their co-workers on the picket line. Like many in attendance, they love what they do.

In their eyes, the union is not asking for much. Many of the workers at the library have college degrees and years of work experience but are forced to live in poverty. For Baker, it is clear that “Education is expected but not paid for.”

The union wants the public to know that “91 percent of Peoria Public Library employees live paycheck to paycheck, over 80 percent are housing insecure, and almost 20 percent are on government assistance” according to Walraven in an interview he gave to People’s World.

Despite the plight of the library workers, the city of Peoria has made no effort to provide a higher budget for their libraries. Instead, the city rallied behind corporate interests on March 13 to unanimously pass $20.5 million in bonds to the local Civic Center to satisfy the Riverman hockey team. They also had no issue promising a 100% reimbursement of the redevelopment costs for a $57.1 million hotel through their Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program.

While Peoria Public Library employees did get a raise at the start of the year, this was only after the Illinois minimum wage went from $12 to $13 per hour. The library was legally forced to increase the wages of its workers to the lowest wage the state allows. On the other side of the negotiation table, the executive director of Peoria Public Library, Randall Yelverton, was given a salary of $107,109.86 in 2022.

Nothing that can’t be accomplished

The library staff was accompanied by representatives from AFSCME’s Council 31, Local 3586, and other unionized municipal staff from local 3464. In addition to AFSCME, members from the Peoria Federation of Teachers were also in attendance to show solidarity. The picket line became a coalition of union and non-union labor as local residents joined in and provided a united front against the poverty wages of library workers.

“This is all a union is. Working people standing together and fighting our bosses to make a better life for ourselves” declared Walraven to the picket line. “The hope is what you see in front of you. When working people get together in solidarity with each other there is literally nothing on earth we cannot accomplish.”

This informational picket is just one of many direct actions AFSCME Local 3464 has taken over the last year. Tuesday marked the second time the union has confronted the Library Board of Trustees, the first being exactly one month prior. Continued resistance from Peoria Public Library has been met with continued steps of escalation from the union.

“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,” Walraven told People’s World. “Our union is learning how to flex its muscles.”

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Noah Palm
Noah Palm

Noah Palm writes from Peoria, Illinois.