Louisville Metro Government and AFSCME Local 3425, the union representing Louisville Free Public Library workers, agreed this week to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a new union contract.

The negotiations have been going on for about two years and LFPL workers are currently working under an expired contract.

“We don’t yet have a date, but we’re very happy to have gotten that response,” Katherine Skaggs, LFPL librarian at the Shawnee branch and union president, said.

The move comes less than a week after the union posted a letter on Change.org, airing some workers’ grievances over what the union describes as fraught contract negotiations.

“The thing that we want the most is to be treated with consistency and dignity, and to get the money, ultimately, that we are owed, to at least get that,” Skaggs said.

The letter, which had more than 680 signatures as of Friday afternoon, asked Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Council members to intervene and “help resolve the conflict between the Louisville Metro negotiations team and our members.”

“Amid all this, our workers were going underpaid,” the letter continued. “Metro put off beginning negotiations until after our contract expired.”

The letter said the union started negotiations with Metro for a new contract in August 2019, months after their contract’s initial expiration date. According to the Metro Government website, that contract was extended through the end of March “via mutual agreement,” and it’s the contract Metro’s library workers currently work under.

The LFPL administration’s account of contract negotiations is quite different.

In a statement, LFPL director Lee Burchfield said, “At no time has AFSCME indicated to Metro Government that negotiations were at an impasse.”

He said Metro has been “continually responsive and available to the union negotiations team,” and provided contract proposals to the union in February and March. 

Then, last month, the union told Metro it was rejecting the latest proposal and wanted to negotiate more, Burchfield said. He said he’s looking forward to negotiations resuming and hopes they can reach an “agreement on a mutually beneficial contract.”

LFPL and its workers “are incredibly important to Mayor Fischer,” his spokesperson Jean Porter said.

“He and his team continue to work to achieve a contract that meets their needs and those of the city’s taxpayers,” Porter wrote in an email to WFPL News.

Spokespeople for the Democratic and Republican Metro Council caucuses said, traditionally, council members do not get involved with union contract negotiations. Council members’ primary role in this process is to vote either yes or no on a finalized contract.

It’s a “pretty hands-off approach,” minority caucus director Steven Haag said. 

But, he added, it’s ideal for negotiations to begin before a contract expires “because frankly, the employees deserve to have that resolved.” 

Plus, he said, council members need to know how a new contract could impact the city’s budget. Metro Council is currently working on the budget for the fiscal year starting June 1, and will pass a final version in late June.

The union scaled back its original proposal and presented it to Metro before Thanksgiving last year, according to the online letter. Union president Katherine Skaggs said, at this point, the top priority is wages: LFPL workers have gone without pay raises or cost-of-living adjustments for two years. 

“A big part of what we’re interested in is getting the pay scale worked out in a way that is good for library workers,” she said.

Skaggs said the compensation issue is both a detriment to the workers who have living and family expenses to cover and to the library system as a whole, because it hurts recruitment and retention. 

“There’s a huge amount of training and knowledge that our workers possess that is being lost whenever people leave the system,” she said.

Another key contract item for the union is “tightening up the language” to make funeral leave more inclusive of different family types.

“At least philosophically, the way I approach this is that it’s not just a matter of things that we want as a library union, it’s also things that we would like to see for workers in general, and we just happened to be advocating for library workers,” Skaggs said. 

Between the lengthy negotiations and the added stress of  the pandemic, Skaggs said worker morale is “quite low.”

“I think that everyone’s resources, as an institution and as individuals, are probably stretched as thin as they can go without breaking,” she said. 

LFPL spokesperson Paul Burns said in an email that Metro Government is asking the union to set up a meeting date and time and, “once they respond, then we’ll be back at the negotiation table.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.