Librarians, Let's Hear You Roar!

I am writing today for a specific audience, the librarians of Auckland. For most of the last year, you have existed in a secret reign of terror. You toiled on, while high level city and library administrators cooked up Fit for the Future reforms which we all know are already negatively impacting library service by reducing your number. Most of the rest of you have had to reapply for work which will entail spreading your time between multiple branches; this will break up existing teams and further compromise the service you can provide. Never mind the connections and expertise you have built up as individuals serving your communities, sometimes over decades, when there are efficiencies to be had and more to be done with less. It's obvious from the business case that regardless of how it was originally envisaged, Fit for the Future's main goal is about saving ratepayer money. Meanwhile the Council and the public have been spoon-fed diversionary truths (no libraries will be closed, no hours reduced, more mobile services, new libraries have been built) and out-and-out lies (it's an operational matter so no need for public input, service won't be affected, there's a job for everyone now that we've made 74 people redundant).
When the staffing plans finally went public on April 10, the situation was as bleak as you and your steadily awakening cadre of public supporters could have feared. You spent the next two weeks, including the Easter holiday, feverishly polishing up CVs, writing paragraphs to answer "What Does 'Our Promise to Auckland' Mean to You?", and preparing to explain to interviewers why you are qualified to continue doing the work you have been doing.

You are now in the midst of a demeaning game of musical chairs, as you compete with your colleagues for the work that remains. Despite the Libraries General Manager's charm offensive visit to RNZ (before she took a week's leave) to declare that there is work for all of the remaining employees, you know this realistically isn't the case and that some of you will be disadvantaged by personal circumstances in taking up the new jobs on offer. Just late last week, we've learned that the hours and locations of the new jobs are only fixed for the first three months, presumably to allow admin to further tweak scheduling in their quest to deliver optimum coverage. I'm sure you marvellously agile employees will have no problem coping with this additional dose of uncertainty.

Many of you have contacted me to express your thanks for the grassroots Love Our Libraries campaign and to share your war stories. In almost all cases, you have asked me to protect your identity and I have done that, while sharing your testimonials in our public Facebook group and with sympathetic Councillors.

Not one of you has had a kind word to say about your union, the PSA, which I understand represents somewhere between 50 to 80% of you. After all, your union went along with your being muzzled while failing to do the necessary work itself to raise public awareness of your plight. A PSA rep assured me they did try to attract media attention but the question remains why job action wasn't considered as that certainly would have brought your concerns front and centre before a public that truly does love its libraries and appreciate your devotion. Fit for the Future should have been forcefully opposed, instead we are left to contemplate alternative meanings for the PSA acronym (Pliant....)

This screen shot from the draft business case shows that management took for granted PSA's compliance with the Fit for the Future plans.

Thanks to the communications I've had with former and current staff as well as people familiar with employment law, I am convinced that many of you would have grievances actionable by the Employment Relations Authority:

  • First and foremost, the Council has neglected its duty of care to employees by subjecting you to prolonged stress and uncertainty.
  • At least some of you who have left your jobs, with or without a voluntary redundancy package, can be construed as having taken a "constructive dismissal". This is a situation where an employee resigns as a result of improper conduct by the employer. The employee's resignation must arise from some breach of the employer's duties and must be a reasonable decision in the circumstances.
  • Since some branches are now understaffed, your workloads have increased without a commensurate increase in your wages.
  • It is likely the consultation process was flawed. Those of you who are not union members had no one representing you at closed door negotiations, which were restricted to very few participants.
  • Because there has been much turnover in the library's "People and Capability" (HR) department, the process was not managed by HR professionals but rather by a business partner and consultants who don't understand the process.
  • Nowhere in consultation were you told that virtually all of the current roles would be disestablished, a breach of process due to lack of transparency of intent. There was no way to know what the changes would have meant for you as individual employees.
  • Some of you will be disadvantaged (this is a legal term) in applying for the new positions because your lack of transportation, health, or other personal circumstances will make it impossible for you to work at multiple branches.

    For several weeks I have been urging you to seek legal advice and to consider laying a grievance with the Employment Relations Authority. I have been led to believe that just one staff member by doing so could trigger the ERA/Employment Court's ability to review and potentially shut down the Fit for the Future process, a remedy which is simply unavailable to concerned members of the public. Former employees less than 90 days from their separation date are also eligible to lodge grievances.

    I am not the sort of leader who would ever ask someone to do something I would not do myself, so I feel compelled to let you know that I once pursued a grievance via the ERA and I look back on that era of my life with a sense of pride.

    This was about six years ago. I had spent the prior two years as an itinerant ESOL teacher at several different private language schools in the CBD and Newmarket. At the time I was divorced and living in a small flat with my teenaged son. We were surviving on only my income, which as you'll have gathered, was variable and unpredictable. I was not a union member. I had attended a meeting held by the union I might have joined, however it only seemed to represent teachers under contract. I was finding it impossible to get a contract in the first place.

    You can imagine my relief when I was finally offered a contract at the beginning of 2011 by a school where I'd already been working for a few months. There had been some ongoing issues with afternoon class students making vague complaints about my teaching--oddly, my morning class loved me and made steady progress--even before I was offered the contract. So my relief was hardly absolute, and I well recall the daily terror of trying to prepare afternoon lessons that would satisfy the fickle consumers, which is how the school regarded its students.

    Sadly there were more complaints. The school demanded I follow a pre-determined course of action without opportunity to defend myself. It was humiliating, pointless, and it caused me financial hardship. Then the school went for the jugular, threatening to terminate me without due process if any more complaints arose, justified or not, even though no one had ever been able to get to the bottom of the reason for the complaints.

    I had complied with their demanded course of action, but with the support of some friends, I also did some research. I learned my rights. While still employed by the school, I wrote a detailed letter elaborating my personal grievances and requesting mediation by the Department of Labour. The school disingenuously requested me to clarify my grievances and denied my request for mediation. So I appealed for urgent attention by the Employment Relations Authority.

    I specifically remember thinking, "You cannot treat me this way," after one of the school's owners uttered a disdainful sentence crowned with an expletive at me. It was an empowering moment.

    Ultimately, we did wind up in mediation and I did walk away with a settlement. I continued teaching ESOL a bit longer, so I wasn't blacklisted in the industry, although this experience is mainly why I left the profession when the opportunity presented itself. What I remember most clearly to this day is that I stood up for myself, and at the most vulnerable time in my adult life to date. I chose to hire a lawyer to represent me at the mediation, and the most gratifying moment was when he spelled out all the personal torment I had endured at my employer's hands. My ex-employer squirmed and protested but was unapologetically informed by the mediator that listening to my grievances was part and parcel of the mediation process.

    Had I had a union lawyer, I might have been tempted to fight to the next level, but it is the nature of our system that it doesn't favour the little guy. Nevertheless, I did get some satisfaction.

    So, you librarians, this is why I have been enthusiastically encouraging you to approach the Authority. Much as I would like to, this is a battle I cannot fight on your behalf. The first avenue I pursued, the Love Our Libraries petition to Council to stop the reforms and keep you in your jobs, has predictably been shut down by the Chief Operating Officer, to whom our concerns were referred.

    It is time for you to tell the Council, "You cannot treat me this way." I promise to continue backing you up any way I can.


    The latest indignity: the conditions of the new jobs after Fit for the Future is imposed can be changed after the first "period of time".

  • CheekyGames

    An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.