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Bristol library assistants have voted in favour of strike action over changes to working patterns, if the council refuses to address their complaints.

Photo: Agata & Andrew Mleczko/ Flickr CC

Recent changes have meant the mainly female workforce have short shifts spread across the week, including at weekends, which makes for more traveling time and expense, childcare difficulties, and also impacts on the ability of the largely part time workforce to seek a second job.

Over 80% of library assistants voted for the strike in the UNISON ballot, which Bristol branch secretary Steve Crawshaw called a ‘last resort’, and one he hopes can be avoided through negotiation with the city leadership.

“Staff simply can’t go on stretching their shifts into three or four hour chunks six days a week,” Crawshaw explains. “When library funding came under attack, the Cabinet made a decision to pile the pressure on staff instead of dealing with the problem realistically. Library assistants are committed public servants who want to see their libraries flourish as places of learning and support for the community. But this can’t be delivered if staff are demoralised and exhausted by unworkable shifts.”

The changes are part of the euphemistically-named ‘Managing Change – Libraries for the Future’. The council have been undergoing a budget review since last November, centered on culling staff numbers in the library services. After undergoing exams to compete for their own jobs, many staff were made redundant or did not have temporary contracts renewed.

They have however taken on a new position: a volunteer coordinator. Although the council claim that volunteers will not take on jobs previously done by paid staff, the workers are questioning whether that are training volunteers to do what were, until now, the library assistants’ responsibilities.

“Staff can’t handle new working patterns with caring or family responsibilities,” commented one library assistant, who, as with all the interviewees, asked to remain in strict anonymity to protect her job. “The decision to close Central Library on a Wednesday seems like a crazy decision considering how many job seekers use the library. I think it’s prejudicial to some of our library users who rely on us during the week.”

“The cuts have been going on for years, but this is the most drastic.”

One library assistants drew comparisons between the junior doctors’ strikes and the library struggles – for the emphasis on weekend working and the associated impact on workers, and because “the public services have to be funded properly if they are going to be run properly.”

“The cuts have been going on for years and years, but this is the most drastic,” one library worker said. The most recent changes have caused ‘shock and disbelief’ to staff. They reported that midway through the process, librarians were informed of their post being deleted with no information or confirmation of a redundancy process. Librarians were informed of the exciting new organisation, ‘Libraries for the Future’, via a series of email attachments, with little or no explanation about what the changes meant.

While discussing this with a manager late last year, the manager said a group in senior management “had come to a conclusion about how libraries in Bristol should be run with no consultation from floor management or frontline staff”. The council employee responsible for the cuts is Kate Murray, Head of Libraries.

This is the fourth review in five years, with staff complaining that the role and service has been eroded so far as to diminish the career of anyone working in the library services. Within the last three years, the libraries have seen the disappearance of ‘Senior Library Assistants’ posts, the merger of teams to a decrease in Supervisor positions, eradicating weekend pay enhancements, and an increasing reliance on casual and agency staff.

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  • Pauline Allen says:

    The decision to close the Central Library has angered many residents too. Whilst most communities were given the opportunity to comment on the proposals for their local libraries, Cabot residents were presented with a ‘fait accompli’.

    • R.Sponge says:

      The online public consultation process was open to abuse by management, as people were able to enter votes anonymously, as many times as they wished! The online results shocked many library assistants who counted the PAPER votes by hand so had a good idea of what the outcome would be, but , surprise surprise, it went the other way. Total fix!

  • Amanda says:

    Most areas of uk wide council budgets are suffering from drastic cuts across all divisions. To be fair the cutting of staff has enabled all library branches to remain open across all districts of bristol albeit on on a scaled back level as a conclusion of the consultation. It is a regrettable but certainly inevitable step that the labour costs would be tackled in this way.

  • sez wicks says:

    George Ferguson paid his daughter £92,000 to set up PLAYING OUT, even though it had been running nicely on £12,000 per year, prior to Alice Ferguson needing a job, Then to add salt to the wound, he cut ALL library opening hours by a staggering 25% to save a mere £62,000 a year seems crazy. it is so very very wrong!
    What do we need most in Bristol? Free education resource’s and information for all members of the community? or a few middle class kids to be able to play hopscotch on the road whilst the parents chat and drink Rioja??

  • R. Harrison says:

    Watch out! In Lincolnshire – slowly run down the service – cut opening hours – remove some book stock, particularly reference material – consult on their OWN plan – ignore public response – keep some libraries with reduced hours to fulfil statutory provision – cut librarians and staff – blackmail volunteers into running ‘community hubs’ and in the future possibly having to fund them as well. Three libraries have closed through lack of volunteers already – the fate of others we will learn in a few years time when the small amount of funding they are receiving at present will stop.

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