Over the last year more than 100 libraries have either been closed, are now run by volunteers or have been made into social enterprises, ie privatised. Here Paul Callanan, Socialist Party member from Greenwich, south London, describes the onslaught by a Labour-led council carrying out government cuts. He also explains the huge battle, led by the Unite union, including Socialist Party members, involving possibly the first strike against cuts in libraries.
Celebrations around the declaration of the “Royal Borough of Greenwich”, included letting off fireworks in front of huge crowds of 30 and paying over £130,000 for miniature statues of Tudor kings and queens for the enjoyment of the masses in the town hall.
But workers in Greenwich have been outraged that the council have found the money for Royal celebrations, while carrying out cuts that will devastate workers and their families.
On 30 April, library workers were transferred to Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), which employs staff on poorer pay and conditions than the council. But a magnificent two-day strike by Unite members closed eleven out of 13 libraries.
GLL are terrified of the bad publicity generated by a strike. They claim they are a worker-led company but out of 5,000 staff only 1,400 are permanent. The rest are casuals.
GLL threatened legal action against the strike. Strike action on 30 April and 1 May had to be postponed. But this is only temporary. A new notice will be issued and strike action will begin again. This is a campaign that Unite is determined to see through.
In sharp contrast, there has not been even a message of support from Greenwich Unison. This branch is still under the control of regional officials following a vicious witch-hunt. This shows that had the strike’s leaders remained in Unison, the leadership would have done all it could to block a campaign against this privatisation, let alone strike action.
A march has been organised for 5 May in order to build for further industrial action and cement public support. There will also be a strikers’ benefit evening.
GLL have made clear that following the transfer, there will be a “harmonisation” process, in reality to bring library staff down to GLL levels. GLL negotiators have confirmed that new library staff will be employed on poorer pay and conditions.
But the cat shot out of the bag when the council refused to accept a potential compromise whereby staff would be seconded over to GLL rather than transferred. This compromise would have meant staff staying as council employees, giving a better safeguard against attacks on pay and conditions.
This dispute has highlighted the limited protection offered by TUPE. The legislation only gives protection at the point of transfer. All employers need do is find a reason to attack pay and conditions not linked to the transfer – usually by crying poverty. This has happened to workers again and again and that is why this dispute is so important.
A victory in Greenwich can set an example across the country and will inspire Unison activists to take on their leadership and demand a fighting strategy.
March To Save Our Libraries: 5 May, assemble 11.30, Eltham Centre, Archery Road, Eltham SE9.
Benefit Night: 11 May, Woolwich Theatre, Wellington Street, Woolwich, SE18. Tickets for the benefit available via [email protected]