‘Hands off our jobs’: Library staff across Hackney go on strike amid dispute over council cuts

Strike outside Hackney Central Library. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Library staff who have gone on strike in a fight against cuts have told Town Hall bosses: “Hands off our jobs.”

The first of four days of strikes by Unison members saw staff at picket lines outside Hackney Central and Dalston libraries.

They are opposing a reorganisation of the service which will put 44 full- and part-time staff at risk of redundancy.

Council plans could see 76 roles gone, but 57 new ones created at higher grades. The move would see an overall change from 79.6 jobs to 60.5.

Town Hall bosses are consulting with 99 full- and part-time library staff over the changes.

It is offering voluntary redundancy as part of its plans, which are designed to save £250,000.

Unite union members have also just voted to take industrial action in a separate ballot held this week.

Hackney Council closed all seven libraries, including the Warm Spaces for people worried about heating costs. A notice outside Hackney Central Library said the closure was “to support library colleagues during industrial action”.

George Binnette, a retired Unison officer, told striking staff: “It’s a determined and brave action that you are taking.

“I can’t see cuts on this scale not harming library services for the public.”

The council’s strategic director of engagement, culture and organisational development, Polly Cziok, told the council’s all-Labour skills, economy and growth scrutiny commission yesterday that there is an “appetite” among library staff to take voluntary redundancy.

“I am hopeful that what we end up with is a really good mix of really experienced people,” she said.

She revealed that there are high levels of sickness in the service, with an average of 26 weeks, because some staff have chronic illness but had not, in the past, been given the green light to leave through voluntary redundancy.

Unison disputes this figure and said a few people with long-term sickness increased the average.

A note stuck to Hackney Central Library’s window. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Under the new library strategy, staff will be put on higher grades with more responsibility.

Management and unions met late last week in a bid to avert strike action.

Cziok committed to an independent review of the restructure about a year after it is brought in.

Staff are being given the voluntary redundancy interview questions a week in advance and they have had coaching and interview training.

She told councillors the voluntary redundancies would pay for themselves in three years.

Unison claim that if all 44 employees asking for voluntary redundancy go, the bill could reach £800,000.

One librarian, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Citizen: “It’s not the right time to do this with libraries being used as Warm Spaces.”

She said she is considering leaving over concerns about the staffing numbers and the impact on librarians’ stress levels and wellbeing.

Commenting on the proposals, library user Vicky Guedalla said: “I do not think there should be compulsory redundancies.”

Unison Hackney chairman Brian Debus said: “A lot of members of staff have taken the view that it is not tenable and is not safe.”

Green councillor Alastair Binnie-Lubbock told striking workers he was concerned about safety and staffing levels and any compulsory redundancies: “I do not think the library strategy that they are trying to deliver can possibly be delivered with fewer staff.”

The council has decided that libraries will be closed on Thursday 12 January and next week on Monday 16 and Friday 20 January, in response to the strike action.

Councillor Chris Kennedy, the cabinet member for culture, health, adult social care and voluntary sector, said: “The decision to take industrial action is disappointing, however we understand that a number of staff are concerned about the proposals, and those staff of course have a right to express those concerns.”

He added: “We aim to minimise the impact on staff wellbeing during the process, which for many will result in a better-paid frontline role, a promotion into a management, or a specialist role.”

He continued: “Throughout this process there has been a commitment to keep any compulsory redundancy to a minimum, and there will be no change to minimum staff levels or a reduction of safety across the sites.”