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LSSI begins labor talks

A private firm that operates Jackson County's 15 libraries is being forced to recognize that a majority of its employees are members of a union to resolve a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

"It means library employees will have their union back and more of a voice at their work," said Pauline Black, a library assistant in Ashland.

Service Employees International Union Local 503 filed an unfair labor practice complaint again Library Systems and Services LLC on Dec. 18, 2007, with the National Labor Relations Board, which was scheduled to rule on the matter later this week.

Instead of waiting for the ruling, the Maryland-based company known as LSSI has agreed to enter into negotiations with the union that could result in a contract for an estimated 65 employees who formerly worked for Jackson County but were terminated last April when libraries closed.

"It does not mean that they go back under the contract as they had with Jackson County," said Andrew Barnes, assistant organizing director for the union. "It does not mean folks go back and have the same wages and benefits as county workers."

Barnes said it will be up to library workers to decide what they want from a contract, which would have to be negotiated with LSSI.

"My sense is the biggest hit people took was around benefits," he said. "There is not a huge gap in wages."

Frank Pezzanite, president and chief executive officer of LSSI, said he wants to work with the union but his company did not envision it would enter into bargaining talks when it signed a contract with Jackson County to operate libraries. All 15 branches reopened last October.

"We are somewhat limited because we have a five-year contract with the county," said Pezzanite.

He said his company has so many start-up costs it doesn't expect to make money in the first year of operation.

"We are not making a profit," he said. "We hope that changes as months go by."

The county's contract with LSSI is $3,048,948 for the first year of the agreement, but because the contract started on Oct. 1 the county will pay 75 percent, or $2,286,711. For fiscal year 2008-09, the LSSI contract is $3,140,416. Another $1.3 million will be spent by the county annually for utilities, facility maintenance, landscaping, telephones, custodial services and the computer system known as SOLIS.

The total amount to run the library system under LSSI is about half what it was under the county.

Pezzanite said negotiations with the union could be challenging, but he expects to find a way to coexist.

"We're fully committed to Jackson County and to making this work," he said. "I don't want the county itself to be nervous or worried."

He said his company will be straightforward about its financial picture as it works toward agreement.

"We are confined by our contract," he said. "We don't have a lot of wiggle room and a lot of flex."

Barnes said the union will have meetings with library workers, conduct a survey to determine what they want out of a contract, then eventually present a proposal to LSSI.

He said there could be disagreements over who is considered a manager and who isn't.

Library workers' choices regarding wages and benefits may affect services, Barnes acknowledged.

"It's not going to be an easy process to enter into a contract," he said. "We're hoping for a collaborative process."

He said the unfair labor practice complaint was filed because the union maintains its members can't just be terminated, then rehired again by another company to do basically the same job.

Linda Davidson, officer in charge for the Portland office of the NLRB, said the situation with Jackson County union workers is not uncommon.

In other cases where a majority of the workers were terminated then rehired, the private company had to recognize them as members of the union, she said.

Generally, complaints are settled between the private company and the union, she said. "Very rarely does it get to the point where the NLRB issues a complaint."

Black, the library assistant in Ashland, said about 90 percent of the library employees she's talked to support the return of the union.

"Working for LSSI or any employer where there isn't a union means that you are less free to speak and less free to offer your opinion," she said. "I feel a lot more secure."

Black said she is not eligible for health benefits under LSSI because she works just 20 hours a week. She said she would have been eligible under the contract with the county, though she had insurance through her husband.

She said it's important that shelvers, who perform the task of putting books back in the right spot, get some additional benefits such as health insurance, vacation and paid holidays.

"It's an essential position," she said. "People who are not as trained and motivated don't do a good job."

Black noted that while some people don't like unions, the organized groups helped establish the eight-hour workday and other benefits that most employees take for granted. She said the local union helped lobby in Washington, D.C., to get the one-year renewal of the federal timber payments which was used, in part, to reopen the libraries.

Black understands that LSSI wants to make a profit, but she said, "It concerns me when we see the profits not benefiting the local area at all."

She said the decision to contract with an outside firm has meant some workers can barely support themselves on the wages and benefits offered.

She said the county, which supported outsourcing, needs to consider options that benefit the community as a whole.

"The cheapest thing isn't the best thing in most circumstances," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.