MARYSVILLE — Sno-Isle Libraries staff members filled the library’s board meeting on Tuesday to notify leadership they have filed for union recognition.
The meeting in the library administrative office was so full that a handful of the attendees, some wearing green “100% Union Strong” T-shirts, spilled into an overflow room to watch on a screen. Around 26 people attended on Zoom.
Attendees were in good spirits, talking and laughing together before the meeting began. About 10 people spoke during public comment to express support for the union.
Workers announced their plan to form Sno-Isle Libraries Employees United on May 19. They intend to join AFSCME Council 2.
In interviews, workers cited inconsistent policies, safety issues and lack of a say in decision-making as reasons for unionizing.
“There’s no mechanism here for us to review anybody higher up than us,” said Abby Reveles, a librarian at the Arlington branch. “So we get really entrenched managers who are not supporting the people that are working for them the way that they’re supposed to.”
One issue, she said, is leave policies that are left up to managers to approve. In some cases, people had to take unpaid leave when they were sick even though they had other types of leave available, she said.
There have also been issues with inadequate staffing, she said.
“My manager, who I love, has been repeatedly requesting for certain positions that we lost to be filled and saying we can’t do the work that you’re asking us to do without those filled,” Reveles said, but leadership said no.
At the same time, she said, library staff are “on the front line” of a culture war. She said in the past year there had been an increase in incidents of people coming in upset about books carried by the library, usually about children’s books with LGBTQ+ characters.
“They will sometimes become very angry and confrontational,” she said. “And you have to stand there, absorb all of their angry energy, and find a way to respectfully respond to the dehumanization of friends and family that you care deeply about.”
Dealing with situations like those, Reveles said, is “incredibly taxing.”
David Durante, deputy director for Sno-Isle Libraries, said in an interview the library supports the workers’ right to organize.
He couldn’t confirm whether the board would voluntarily recognize the union, but said “whether (staff) decide to move forward with the union or not, we’ll stay in continued conversation with them about what Sno-Isle looks like.”
In cases where people take issue with books in the library collection, he said, “we work to support staff in those environments with talking points and especially lean into our particular policies around this work.”
For the most part, he said, staff “have proven to be pretty well equipped … to handle these conversations.”
He said the library system also gets support from community groups like the Washington Library Association to guide its response.
As far as positions not being filled, Durante pointed to the fact that some positions are temporary. In particular, he highlighted development positions, which allow staff to work a different job for a time.
“We do ask our libraries to think through what makes the most sense,” he said. “And so sometimes positions change” into different positions.
Libraries are also on the front line of public health crises like homelessness and drug use, said Michael Rainey, AFSCME Council 2 president.
“The fact that library employees are having to be trained in treating people with Narcan,” Rainey said, “that is a cultural thing that we’re facing that most people don’t see.”
That’s the case in not only the Sno-Isle system, he said, but “everywhere.”
Kim Larson, a library associate at the Snohomish Library, emphasized that everyone is welcome in the library. But without full staffing, she said, safety issues can arise.
“Staff safety, as well as the safety of the public that we serve, can be impacted and needs to be recognized as valuable,” she said. “And that’s what we’re hoping to accomplish with the union is that we can start to address these concerns with a unified voice.”
There’s a lack of clarity, Larson said, about who is allowed to file an incident report. Clearer policies and procedures are one thing the union hopes to hammer out.
“We take our staff safety very seriously,” Durante said, noting Sno-Isle has a safety committee and an assistant director responsible for safety.
Durante also said managers can guide staff through the process of making an incident report, which are reviewed by the leadership team.
The Mariner, Lakewood/Smokey Point, Oak Harbor, Mukilteo, Edmonds, Sultan and Marysville locations have security guards.
Staff go through safety trainings as well, he said, including active shooter training and bloodborne pathogen training.
The library system is in touch with health organizations, first responders, emergency management and local police, he said.
At least one person who spoke at the board meeting Tuesday said advancement and training was difficult in the Sno-Isle system.
The library system is committed “to hiring from within the organization,” Durante said. He said there were “a lot of avenues” for advancement with temporary and development positions. Part-time employees also get benefits like dental care, vacation time and sick leave, he said.
Staff can connect with leadership at virtual drop-in sessions, Durante said.
“It’s actually one of my favorite things about working at Sno-Isle,” he said. At those meetings, he said, library leadership hear about staff concerns and questions.
“That really does guide our conversations at leadership team,” he said.
Reveles has a different view of the drop-in sessions.
“We’ll say things like, ‘Hey, we’re incredibly short-staffed in the North District’” at the drop-in meetings, she said, but then no one new will be hired. “Six months later, you ask the same question, ‘Oh well we looked into it and we just felt like it wasn’t that big a deal.’”
Meanwhile, Reveles said, she’s going home with “stress headaches.”
“It really falls to the people doing the work to take the brunt of that strain,” she said.
The next step, Rainey said, is building the union infrastructure and creating bylaws. Then they’ll work on a contract.
Without voluntary recognition from Sno-Isle, unionization will come to a vote.
Union advocates don’t seem worried. A SILEU press release said the union had “supermajority support … exceeding well beyond the 50% required to file for card check union recognition” in Washington.
The board meeting was attended by supporters of library workers, as well.
Debby Lippincott, a retired AFSCME field coordinator, said she hadn’t realized Sno-Isle staff weren’t unionized. Most library systems are, she said.
“It’s all about having a voice,” she said. “Most union organizing campaigns are not about the money.”
Her sister, Terry Lippincott, is president of Friends of Snohomish Library and was formerly the chair of the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation. She also came to the meeting.
Library workers, Terry Lippincott said, are “energized. They’re motivated. You don’t want to mess with a librarian.”