Contract Negotiations at Cleveland Public Library Reach a Standstill; Management Now Refusing to Negotiate

Hundreds of bargaining unit employees at Cleveland Public Library have been working the entirety of 2014 under the extension of a contract that expired on December 31, 2013 and negotiations with the organization's management team have failed to result in an agreement that the two parties find acceptable. After nine months of negotiations and two rejected proposals, the most recent of which was rejected by a majority on June 11, management refuses to negotiate the contract any further with SEIU 1199 and seeks to immediately proceed to fact-finding.

Fact-finding is a generally a last resort employed when an impasse has been formally declared, and is often used to avoid a strike. The fact-finding process works differently than bargaining and mediation. There is no prioritizing or grouping of issues, and no give and take. The fact-finder can decide to either take the management's position, the Union's position, or some other position in between. The fact-finder conducts what amounts to a hearing where each side presents, issue by issue, witnesses and documentation to support its stance.

Ohio law requires that fact-finders issue "recommendations" to settle the disputes. The term recommendation, however, is in this case a bit of a misnomer because the law makes these "recommendations" binding on both sides unless one or both sides vote to reject the recommendations. Voting to reject the recommendations also means the rejection of all the tentative agreements reached prior to the fact-finding.

A tentative agreement reached by the negotiating team was presented to membership on May 7 and was unanimously rejected. A second tentative agreement was put to a ratification vote on June 11. A majority voted to reject the proposal. Subsequently, an invitation to resume negotiations was declined by the library administration, which has instead opted to move on to fact-finding.

One of the primary issues of contention during negotiations has been wage increases. While a very slight increase has been offered, it is tied to health insurance premium increases. Any increase in premium above a specified threshold would mean a reduction in the proposed cost of living wage increase. Bargaining unit employees at Cleveland Public Library have not enjoyed a raise in five years, while a number of management and non-union employees have received what amounts to raises through the creative practice of promotions or transfers to newly created positions that did not previously exist but that curiously pay a higher wage. This has created tensions between the two parties that are clearly coming out in the contract negotiations process.

In 2004, contract negotiations between SEIU and CPL administration reached a similar standstill. Tensions boiled over and the two sides refused to budge, so for the first time in the library's over 100-year history, it's bargaining unit staff went on strike. The strike lasted just one day and accomplished it's primary objective of sending a message to management. Negotiations resumed and a contract that both sides found acceptable was eventually reached.

The library and union have since adopted the a form of negotiating called Interest-Based Bargaining, or IBB, which replaces the traditional positional bargaining, and have been using it for the past seven years during contract negotiations. It could be surmised that the organization's past success with the IBB process this time has been undermined by the mistrust that many bargaining unit members have of the management due to the seemingly contradictory compensation practices in recent years. It would be foolish to think that a strike could not happen again in the near future if the two sides cannot come to a reasonable agreement.