By GREGORY N. HEIRES
Back in the mid-1990s, Queens Public Library hired a private security guard company, supposedly to supplement its own unionized guards.
Fast forward to 2010. That’s when the library laid off two security guards, leaving only one on its payroll. About a dozen lower-paid non-union contract security guards now monitor the Central library and the biggest branch, Flushing. The 62 other branches are left to fend for themselves.
In April, the library’s trustees approved a contract with a private company for custodian services.Today, the administration is once more singing the same old song. It assured the union that it doesn’t plan to lay off any of its own approximately 75 custodian workers. Management says it only needs extra help at the Central Library.
But the union and its members are concerned that what’s afoot is creeping contracting out, a long-term plan to get rid of unionized employees. Already, the library has assigned contract custodians to work at a branch under renovation in addition to those working at the Central Library.
“We’re scared,” said a custodian represented by Queens Public Library Guild Local 1321 of District Council 37, AFSCME. “We saw what happened with the security guards, so we are worried about our jobs,” said the custodian, who asked to remain anonymous because he said that he feared management would retaliate if he went public.
Alarmed about the contracting out, Local 1321 recently launched a campaign to pressure the administration to cancel its open-ended contract with Busy Bee Cleaning Service and instead beef up its own custodian staff.
The local is using informational flyers, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, lobbying and a public relations campaign to reach out to patrons and politicians to support its campaign against contracting out, which is one of the key weapons used by conservatives and anti-government interests to weaken unions and undermine public services.
Queens Public Library, one of three public library systems in New York City, has claimed that it lacks sufficient funds to hire additional permanent employees, but the local argues the resources are there.
“We have been calling for more hiring for a long time now,” said Local 1321 President John Hyslop, noting that the custodian staff has dropped by at least 25 positions over the past five years.
Hyslop disputed the administration’s claim about its lack of funds. He also criticized pay inequity at the library.
Since 2011, Hyslop pointed out, the administration has allocated $2 .7 million for management raises and hiring.
The $340,000 in raises for administrators included $20,000 for the president and CEO, Thomas W. Galante, and $38,000 to another manager. Galante earned $379,313 from April 2011 to May 2012. In comparison, the commissioners of the city’s departments of Corrections, Fire and Investigation are paid $204,618 each.
But while the library has doled out generous raises to its managers and earmarked $180,000 for two new supervisory custodian positions, front-line workers haven’t seen a raise in four years. Four new custodian positions would cost $137,015—and provide adequate staffing for the Central Library.
“There is a philosophical question here in addition to our disagreement over the library’s budgeting priorities,” Hyslop said. “This is also a question of how taxpayers wish to use their tax dollars.”
A Growing Corporate Ethos
By contracting out, Queens Library is adopting the low-wage Wal-Mart business model. The move reflects the growing corporate ethos of the system, whose employees are instructed to call library visitors “customers” rather than the traditional term “patrons.”
Cash-strapped public libraries turn to contracting out to seek on such services as payroll processing, library binding, technical processing, janitorial and security services. This sometimes involves union busting, and it allows libraries to avoid paying for health-care and other benefits, including pensions. But as it is carried out more and more nationwide, the use of lower-paid contract workers puts downward pressure on the wages of everyone—public sector and private sector workers.
Some library jurisdictions are taking the radical step of privatizing their entire systems. Library Systems & Services, LLC runs about 20 systems nationwide. But some library systems that went private have scrapped their contracts because the privatized services became too expensive or the anticipated savings didn’t materialize, according to In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and responsible contracting.
At Queens, the hourly rate of a Busy Bee non-supervisory custodians ranges from $14.94 to $15.50, according to the minutes of the April trustees meeting. The hourly rate of the custodian titles represented by Local 1321, including health and other benefits, ranges from $21.17 to $26.25.
“As it contracts out work, Queens Library is joining the employers in this country who are encouraging a race to the bottom,” Hyslop said. “I don’t think taxpayers of New York really want to have their tax dollars used to lower the living standard of the working class.”
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