Council's Poor Treatment of Library Staff Could Leave it Open to Liability

A few months before last year’s local body elections, high-level Auckland library and city administrators began plotting Fit for the Future reforms. Ostensibly, Fit for the Future was meant to be a programme to evolve libraries to better meet a growing need for digital and online services in the wake of a fall in desk checkouts. However it was also stressed that services at each of the 55 branches were to be based on the needs of their communities. The instigation of a hiring freeze signaled a further, less lofty purpose, to find a way to trim the system’s $65 million annual operating budget. The business case (see p. 6) eventually made public revealed this primary motivation and a mechanism to achieve it by reducing staff numbers and pooling remaining staff.

Despite Fit for the Future’s ambition to tailor programming to community needs, the public were not only uninvolved but deliberately kept in the dark. Staff were provided a lightweight script to use in the unlikely event of inquiries. Staff consultation, which some have derided as little more than a box-ticking process, culminated in final documents circulated in confidence to the approximately 1000 staff members in January. The directive not to engage in any depth with the public remained clear. Evidently the PSA union went along with this muzzling because Council employees must avoid bringing the Council into disrepute, but the union failed to achieve public or media scrutiny with efforts of its own.

Details nevertheless started to be leaked at least as early as March 15, with retired Orewa teacher Pauline Wetton's full-length Herald editorial. Community activism was also underway at that point in the form of the Love Our Libraries campaign, which aimed to raise public awareness and provide an outlet for library users to express their appreciation for existing libraries, library programming, and librarians. The group’s official launch saw them collecting such testimonials outside Auckland Central Library on March 4.
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Siblings talk about checking out comic books from St Heliers Library, which they visit at least twice a week

The following Friday, via a conference call, Libraries General Manager Mirla Edmundson cautioned staff to avoid engaging with the new group. A week later, the Herald published a letter from her which sought to reassure that no libraries would be closed or hours scaled back.

At the same time, in response to a query made to Councillor Desley Simpson, James Stephens, her Senior Advisor and support officer wrote:

The changes are an organizational restructure and that service levels provided by the libraries to the public are not being affected. As it is a matter of staffing, there will not be public consultation….The responsibility for negotiating staff employment is delegated to the CEO and is not a matter in which elected representatives make decisions, aside from setting the Remuneration Policy to which the CEO must adhere. Because it is a purely operational matter there is no public consultation.

Yet on March 24, at a meeting between Love Our Libraries representatives and Ms Edmundson and two of her staff, she categorized the reforms as a service restructure.

Fit for the Future details, at least regarding staffing, were finally made public on Monday, April 10 and they confirmed the worst fears of library supporters. Already, 74 staff had agreed to redundancy arrangements. Up to 80% of the remaining positions would be disestablished, and staff had just under two weeks, including the Easter holiday, to submit Expressions of Interest in continuing work. This process would have them preparing CVs; submitting to medical, background, and police checks; and preparing for interviews where they would be asked “behavioural and competency-based questions”. They also had to answer absurd and demeaning questions. Respective examples: “What does ‘Our Promise to Auckland’ mean to you? and “Why do you believe you are suitable for this position?” They were also asked about their ability to work in agile and flexible environments. The reason for this is that the new positions will require librarians to split their time among different libraries within local board areas.

Maintaining that such a profound cut and shuffle of staff would diminish the level of service at libraries, Love Our Libraries launched a petition drive on April 11.

Struggle behind the bookcases, a Herald opinion piece by journalist Janet McAllister published April 24 spurred growing public awareness and engagement. McAllister has been visiting each of the 55 branches. She wrote that behind their cheerful surfaces, librarians have been feeling frustrated, overworked, and degraded and she raised the alarm that the job cuts equated to seven libraries’ worth of staff. The petition grew by 1500 of its eventual 3400 signatures in the immediate wake of the McAllister piece.
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Several media outlets attended the Governing Body meeting yesterday at which the petition was presented and Council officially asked to intercede to stop the Fit for the Future process, leave remaining staff in their existing roles, and hold proper public consultations on a library-by-library basis to involve each library’s existing staff, patrons, and greater community.

Several Councillors have so far identified themselves as supportive, including Efeso Collins, Christine Fletcher, Mike Lee, Greg Sayers, Desley Simpson, and Cathy Casey. Mayor Goff repeated familiar assurances that there would be no reduction in library service or library closures but acknowledged the concerns raised were genuine. He referred the matter to the city’s Chief Operations Officer and Ms Edmundson’s immediate boss, Dean Kimpton.

Can Mr Kimpton countenance unraveling plans he presumably had a hand in crafting? His comments to Love Our Libraries supporters outside the Council chamber were less than encouraging as it’s clear he doesn’t take on board the point that the librarians are an integral part of the service.

Love Our Libraries has encouraged interested and sympathetic Councillors to investigate the propriety of the consultation process. A petition signatory with knowledge of employment law sent through the comment:

I am rather puzzled about the status of the current positions of the majority of staff. The fact that we are talking about people re-applying for positions indicates there is something wrong with the process. Re-applying for positions is quite different from positions being made redundant and replaced by new positions for which staff from those redundant positions might have the opportunity to apply before the jobs are advertised further afield. Library positions cannot be unilaterally changed.

Is it an exaggeration or false alarm to contemplate just one current or former employee filing a grievance via the Employment Relations Authority that could precipitate liability for Council well in excess of the relatively paltry $1.8 million they expect the staffing reshuffle to save?