Library Wars

The Final Chapter?


Editorial By Michael Pellegrini


For the better part of the last ten years, the Tacoma Public Library has suffered a seemingly endless string of labor problems: bitterly contested sets of contract negotiations, protracted court fights over the disclosure of public records, as well as numerous employee grievances and unfair labor practice charges. Of the court battles and grievances, the library has in most cases, lost.


The job of guiding the library to this succession of glorious defeats has been the domain of an exclusive Bellevue law firm, which not coincidentally, has an ideological bent towards union busting.


Ideology figures heavily in the library’s troubles. Over the past years, time and again the library’s postions were drawn along ideological lines, with little apparent rational thought towards present legal realities. The matter of the public records fight illustrates this.


About four years ago while in contract negotiations, the library workers union requested certain payroll data and other public personnel records they said were necessary to aid them in bargaining. The library flatly refused to provide the data.


Now this is not a controversial or unsettled area of law. Public disclosure case law is well defined, with many precedents that clearly obligate public employers to divulge most all pay and benefit data. Under prevailing case law, generally very little can be withheld from disclosure except for example, employee social security numbers and other confidential material in an employee’s personnel file – all of which any competent attorney could have told the library in fifteen minutes, without any extensive legal research or exorbitant fees.


But legal precedents and common sense notwithstanding, the library chose to fight an expensive, three-year-long legal battle against disclosing the documents – a legal battle which, predictably, they lost at nearly every turn.


Sadly, this sort of fight was not unique. There were many other, less high-profile incidents.


There were a series of long, drawn-out conflicts over free speech rights. These disputes involved what could be posted on employee bulletin boards, what kind of reading material could be left in the workplace, and in some instances, even what sort of political cartoons the employees could read on break.


Added to this, were policies which made it clear the library administration didn’t trust the employees: for example, the fact that the employees were made to use time clocks while management employees were not. Another example is that employees have to pass through scanners to leave the library, while management employees can use unmonitored back doors.


The net effect of the anti-employee policies, the court battles and the other disputes was to devastate employee morale, and to promote an adversarial, divisive atmosphere. Over a period of years, the employees became fearful and distrustful of the library administration. This spread even to the point where the mid-level managers formed their own union in 1995.


The price-tag for creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust, demoralizing their employees, and mostly losing their court battles was not cheap. The library spent $250,000 of taxpayer money over the last four years.


By comparison, the Pierce County Library system spent just $76,986 in the same period on labor relations. The Timberland Regional Library system spent only $6,720 in the same four years.


Another way to put this in perspective is that the library spent only $230,000 on the acquisition of juvenile materials and adult fiction, out of a book and magazine budget of more than $1 million during the same period. The quarter of a million dollars the library spent fighting and demoralizing its employees equals perhaps as much as a quarter of the entire amount spent on books and magazines. That’s dead wrong.


Thankfully, it now appears the tide is finally beginning to turn.


Director Susan Hardie resigned recently. This is a good start to remedy the library’s problems. But the big questions is whether or not she was the person actually responsible for the fiasco.


Many people familiar with the situation now point a finger at Michael Taft, the library Personnel Director. Many feel he was the driving force behind a majority of the library’s bad labor relations decisions.


In the final analysis, what it boils down to is that the library spent about a quarter of a million dollars to impose an ideological position counter to the best interests of the public – even when it knew it could not likely prevail. That is a grave misuse of public funds and trust.


This cannot be tolerated, because public employees have a right to be treated fairly, with respect and dignity.


The responsible parties, whoever they may be, should be removed from office at once. Only then may the wounds start to heal.