Denver Government

A New Chapter: Denver Public Library Staffers Unionize

Some Denver Public Library staffers have formed a union.
Some Denver Public Library staffers have formed a union. Wikimedia Commons
After a difficult year working through the pandemic, dozens of Denver Public Library workers have formed a union.

"I want the library to be the best that it can be, and this looks like a connected workforce with a strong union," says Liana Kiddy-Gan, a clerk at the Central Library who helped form the union.

Kiddy-Gan and 77 other library workers signed on to a letter sent to library management on June 28 announcing the formation of the union.

The Denver Public Library is a massive institution that has 26 branches and a nearly $50 million annual budget; the DPL has 553 staffers right now. A city agency, it's governed by an eight-member Library Commission appointed by the Denver mayor.

One of the top demands of the union, which is calling itself Denver Public Library Workers United, is for employees who are classified under the "at-will employment" category to be reclassified so that they can only be fired for "just cause."

Will Torrence, a reference librarian at the Central Library and a new union member, says that library employees were shocked when they found out that they had been recategorized as "at-will" employees in 2019.

Erika Martinez, a spokesperson for the Denver Public Library, says that this switch was made to get a handle on "poor performance" challenges that supervisors were dealing with; a staffer will only be fired immediately for egregious behavior, she adds.

"Outside of an egregious act, a separation will not be a surprise, nor will supervisors be doing this on their own," Martinez explains.

Still, that status change was "the straw that broke the camel's back," Torrence says.

And then during the pandemic, many library staffers felt powerless as "management made a lot of decisions last year without involving staff in those decisions ahead of time," Torrence adds.

In December 2020, employees began organizing after a "spontaneous conversation between a handful of folks" that focused on "managing mental health while working during the pandemic," according to Amelia Eckles, who works as a Park Hill Branch Library clerk and is a member of the union.

Aside from wanting stronger protections from potential dismissal, union members would also like to see more diversity in new hirings and have all staffers paid a "living wage." First and foremost, however, the union wants the Denver Public Library to recognize it as a union.

But there may be some stipulations in the Denver City Charter that would prevent the library from recognizing the union, says City Librarian Michelle Jeske.

"According to the city attorney’s office, the city charter does not recognize employee unions outside of the Safety Department. So we’re not able to formally recognize a union because of that. We’ve been told that it would need to go through a charter amendment at the city level," Jeske says. The city charter specifically grants deputy sheriffs, firefighters and police officers — all under the Department of Public Safety — the right to collectively bargain with the city. Any changes to the charter require a citywide referendum.

"However, we have told the group that has approached us that it doesn’t prevent us from working together," adds Jeske, who notes that she's open to meeting with the union.

"I was surprised to see the letter, and once I read it through, I was appreciative of the tone of that letter and the commitment that I felt coming through of the dedication of that staff to really advance the same things that we want," Jeske explains.

Jeske says that she and her team are reviewing the demands of the union right now. As for that "at-will" request, "It’s actually not my call to make," she notes. "The Library Commission is ultimately responsible."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.