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Libraries remain under threat

Library workers | 01.02.2002 15:53

Support striking Library Workers

Why are Libraries closed on Saturdays?

Library Workers, members of UNISON, will be on official strike each Saturday until further notice. There was a 96% majority (on a 60% turnout) for strike action in a ballot because the Council won’t pay Saturday pay rates for Saturday working. These rates are part of Council Workers’ contracts under National Agreements, but the Council broke those contracts when they came into force on 1st October 2001.

Workers were forced to sign them under the threat of dismissal after a year-long industrial dispute. Workers want to be paid the correct rate for giving up their Saturday, not as if it was a weekday. Striking is the only language the Council understands.

There are also plans both to close Clapton Library and sell the building to Hackney Community College, and to move Homerton Library upstairs and hand over the rest of the building to health services. Up to 3 more of the remaining 6 Libraries (including Homerton) may face permanent closure. These libraries are threatened by Government-imposed cuts. If Workers had not struck over Saturday Pay, these cuts would already have been made.

Library Workers are among the lowest-paid so-called “white collar” workers. Most are Library Assistants (top annual salary around £16,000 far below the average wage in London of around £29,000). Managing Director Max Caller is paid £150,000 to bully workers and destroy services. Workers relied on the extra days’ pay a month from working every other Saturday to make ends meet. This is not about “greed”, and the savings for the Council are minimal. The object of this exercise is to cow and humiliate workers in order to lessen further resistance to the Council’s plans to destroy services in Hackney.

All workers and residents in Hackney who use Library Services, or any service because the picture is the same across the Council, must support this strike in their own interests, and get involved in the struggle beginning to save what is left of the Library Service.

When will the Libraries be open? Their normal hours, including until 8.00pm, except Saturdays.
Will I have to pay fines? You will not be fined for the Saturday the Library was closed, to avoid further fines it is advisable to return, or to renew or extend your loans in person or by telephone on Monday.
How can I help stop closures? Talk to Library Workers about the issues, and about forming or getting involved in a support group for your local Library. UNISON is committed to helping users set up groups to defend services.

Stop Library Closures and Cuts in Services

The Regeneration Committee has decided not to close 3 of the 7 remaining Libraries because the Government gave Hackney another £25m. Clapton Library in Northwold Road is to be closed regardless, and the Council has still been told to cut £50m by the Government. CLR James Library in Dalston Lane, Homerton Library at Brooksbys Walk, and Stoke Newington Library in Stoke Newington Church Street all remain under threat of closure because of these cuts.

Unless these closures are stopped, the only 3 Libraries would be the Shoreditch Library in Hoxton Street, and the “Technology Learning Centre” currently under construction on the south side of the Town Hall Square, and the Stamford Hill Library at Portland Avenue. Some Libraries have been ear-marked for closure because their buildings would fetch more money than others if sold, other Libraries have been saved by existing contractual arrangements which would make their closure very costly indeed to the Council.

This is in spite of the fact that 3 Branch Libraries, 2 out of the 3 Reference Libraries, and the bulk loans service for Schools were closed in 1988. Another “service improvement” was achieved by cutting half the remaining 14 Libraries in 1997 along with the Bookbus, and a number of specialist services to Black & Ethnic Minority users were closed when Government funding was cut a year later. Only this year the Mobile Library has been closed. In total Hackney has already lost 19 Library Services since 1988, leaving only 9 (the seven Lending Libraries, a Reference Library and the Home Visit Service) for the time being.

Hackney already has the second smallest number of Libraries of any London Council, and would slip below even Kensington & Chelsea if these cuts are not stopped. This would also be illegal - the Government’s Standards for Public Libraries cannot be met – but is being done at the behest of the Government, and with its connivance.

What is the background to Library Cuts?

The government ordered Hackney Council to cut £75m from its budget (around £240m) in the next three years, this is supposed to “protect and improve the key services” in the words of Stephen Byers, the government minister responsible. This is an obvious lie by Byers, because key services including Housing and Social Services will be cut - below legal requirements - if this is not stopped. The Government has coughed up another £25m, so the total cuts will be scaled down to £50m, but this still means savage cuts.

Clearly need is not the measure of a key service, however, those services which have already been handed over to private contractors can not be significantly cut. This is because the Council has contractual obligations to pay the Contractors a certain amount of money to line the pocket of their shareholders, falsely described as “providing a better service”. This means that the brunt of the cuts will be borne by services provided directly by the Council. This is the brutal truth of the Government’s belief that the Private Sector is better than Public Services.

Where the Spending Priorities lie

These cuts are not the only thing the Government is demanding. Education is also to be handed over to a Government-appointed Trust from August 2002. Worse, the Council must prioritise the recruitment of “key staff”, which is code for Executives on salaries upwards of £70,000. The role of these people is to make sure the banks get the £70m they take in debt servicing each year, to cut services and hand them over to profit-seeking private companies. Their recruitment is more important than providing services to the people of Hackney.

The original decision to close 4 Libraries was approved by a Government official (from DTLR, Byers’ department), not by service managers. When informed of the impact Library Closures would have on the people of Hackney his response was that he “could live with Hackney only having three Libraries”. He justified his decision by saying that if it happened in Wimbledon where he lives, he would get in his car and drive to the nearest Library.

It was pointed out to him that not everyone in Hackney has a car. These people know little and care less about Hackney, its people and their needs. To them, and to Blair, people who can’t afford cars are the problem, and the way to solve Hackney’s problems is to “cleanse” the Borough of these people (i.e. most of its population). In spite of the cutting of grants to Community Groups who provide services the Council has already abandoned, and the proposed Library Closures, the Regeneration Committee is still paying a £300,000 subsidy to the Ocean Music Venue, which is a private, profit-making business.

“Regeneration” or resistance?

Why? Simply because “regeneration” means attracting “the right people” to Hackney to displace those of us the Labour Councillors and their Government and their overpaid Bureaucrats believe are the problem. This is a fight for survival, the first step is to get involved in the fight to save Libraries and other frontline services. Legal challenges are important to clarify and publicise the issues involved and to provide a focus for resistance, but it is only Direct Action which will stop the Government. It is not the realisation that these cuts will be disastrous for the people of Hackney which has caused the Government to think again, but the resistance they have already faced.

The organisation Workers and Residents can build through working together, can be the basis for controlling the Council and creating a true “democracy”, controlled by the people involved in providing and using services from the bottom up. The system of Representative Democracy is the mechanism by which we have been robbed of a say in how services are provided to meet our needs. The system itself works against us, changing the Councillors or the party in power will not change that. We must act avoid getting drawn into supporting “anti-cuts candidates” for the Council elections in May 2002, and stick to stopping the Council, whoever might be elected.

The first step is to get involved in, or help form, a support group for your local library.

Library workers