Christina Ordonez and other librarians within the Salt Lake City Public Library System began to talk about their work conditions about a year ago, finding their stories to be similar across branches.

"I guess with any work, you gather together and start talking about the injustices that are happening at your work. We recognized that there were a lot of injustices and a lot of (inconsistencies) in our system — and we wanted to change that," said the associate librarian at the Day-Riverside Branch.

The idea to unionize was brought up at some point in those discussions and the group determined it to be the best option, especially since nearly all other Salt Lake City employees are already either a part of the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees or two other unions the city recognizes. In fact, the library system is the city's only department where employees are not under a collective bargaining agreement at the moment.

Word of the movement slowly trickled among library workers, many of whom support the idea because of "long-standing issues" related to the job, including safety concerns and below-average wages, according to fellow union organizers. Some had become fed up with either inaccessible or expensive health care, while others didn't like that the staff felt excluded from decisions made by library system leaders.

It all led up to Monday afternoon, when Ordonez and dozens of Salt Lake City library employees gathered at the Main Library to formally request the Salt Lake City Public Library System to voluntarily recognize their union, at a Board of Directors meeting.

Christina Ordonez, associate librarian at the Day-Riverside branch, joins other Salt Lake City Public Library workers at a rally after announcing their intent to unionize, at the Salt Lake City Library in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Christina Ordonez, associate librarian at the Day-Riverside branch, joins other Salt Lake City Public Library workers at a rally after announcing their intent to unionize, at the Salt Lake City Library in Salt Lake City on Monday. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

If that doesn't happen within the next week, workers will begin a process to vote on whether to unionize, said Ivy Smith, library assistant and one of the organizers behind the Salt Lake City Public Library Workers United. She said more than half of the 345 city library employees have already signed the petition, indicating they would have the votes to form a union.

Once that's finalized, Smith said the union will "democratically decide" what the workers' demands will be as they negotiate a contract with the department.

"I think everyone deserves — and has a right — to have a voice on their job," said Jerry Philpott, the local president of the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees. "Everyone has a right to have an input on their working conditions, and watching this happen is inspiring."

Board officials listened to several supporters of the measure but did not vote on or discuss any resolution during Monday's meeting, as they have not had any time to review the situation.

The effort to unionize comes a little less than a week after Salt Lake City Public Library System interim executive director Debbie Ehrman said that improving employee wage increases and benefits is at the top of the department's 2024 fiscal year budget priorities. The plan calls for a $474,600 increase in all salaries and wages, including a 3% increase in cost of living adjustments.

It's unclear how a union would affect the budget proposal. In a statement, Salt Lake City Public Library System officials told KSL.com that they are "interested to learn about the details of (the union's) proposal" and what their demands are before moving forward with the union request.

"(The system's) top priority is to care for each other and library leadership is looking at this as an opportunity to learn more about additional ways we can make our organization an even better place to work," officials added.

There are currently eight branch locations across the city with a ninth on the way.

Those seeking to unionize appreciate what's included in the budget priorities; however, they also want to make sure the department follows through with what it has promised, Smith explained.

Charlie Luke, former Salt Lake City council member, speaks in support of library workers unionizing, at the Salt Lake City Library's monthly board meeting in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Charlie Luke, former Salt Lake City council member, speaks in support of library workers unionizing, at the Salt Lake City Library's monthly board meeting in Salt Lake City on Monday. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

House Minority Assistant Whip Jen Daily-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw and former Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke all backed the librarians during Monday's board meeting. Luke explained that, as a former City Council member, he found that it's easier to negotiate with organized labor unions than without them.

"Working with (the union) is more than just talking about wages. It is a chance to listen to your employees, to listen to the struggles they are dealing with," he told the board. "Allowing them to organize simply gives an opportunity for you to hear from them collectively."

Those who attended the meeting left optimistic about their chances.

The moment was also a long time coming for workers like Ordonez, who has been a part of the conversation from the beginning.

"I hope they do empathize, I think they will," she said of the upcoming negotiations. "I'm really hopeful that they will voluntarily recognize us."