Budget austerity trims library staff and hours, as Mayor Emanuel and AFSCME trade accusations
Sara Doe was hired as a page at a Chicago library in 2007, and immediately fell in love with the job. Earning $11.18 an hour without benefits for shelving books, directing customers and other basic tasks might not be glamorous work, she toldÂ In These Times, but she loved the human interaction and the chance to spend time in libraries, which since she was a kid have been “like museums for me”âoases of calm and knowledge.
Doeâs mother worked in a city library, and since her parents were divorced,Â Doe considered the library her “third home” and has fond memories of stamping due dates in books. But this year visiting the library has been a somewhat painful experience since December 31 was her last day on the job at the northwest side library where she had worked since fall 2009. She was one of 181 library staff laid off because of city budget cuts that hit the library system particularly hard. Along with the layoffs, libraries are now closed on Mondays, cutting total weekly hours from 48 to 40.
After an intenseÂ campaign by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, some library staff were called back to work and Monday afternoon hours were restored, bringing the weekly total to 44 hours. But more than 100 library staff including all the pages are still out of work.
The library cutsâalong with planned layoffs at city mental health clinics and Chicago OâHare International Airportâhave become part of a protracted and bitter battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and public-sector unions, as Emanuel has blamedÂ AFSCME for forcing schedule cuts and using the library system as a bargaining chip.
The union held “Peopleâs Library” hours with book readings outside several libraries during the Monday morning hours when they are now shuttered. Late last month, popular longtime library commissioner Mary Dempsey resigned amidst the controversy. TheÂ Chicago Sun-Times wrote of her departure:
She met her match in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was more concerned about cutting spending than he was about preserving library servicesâŚShe was apparently unwilling to preside over the dismantling of a library system she helped to build, but agreed to postpone her departure to minimize the impact of the cuts. The only surprise was that she didnât walk out the door soonerâŚ
Doe, 30, is desperately hoping to be called back to her library job. She has been applying for other positionsâ”anything and everything,” including food service at the cityâs Wrigley Field baseball stadiumâbut she hasnât had any luck. She qualifies for disability payments and has applied for unemployment, but she would rather be working at the job she loves so much that “the hours go by too fast.”
She toldÂ In These Times:
Itâs not just a job, itâs something I really enjoyed. Even though it was low-status I felt really good and made some good moneyâŚNow I feel like Iâm work-sick. Iâm one of those people who like to work their butts off.
AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said Doeâs attitude is typical:
People donât give their working lives to public service to get rich. Library employees love their communities, their patrons and the role of their libraries as hubs of learning, research, culture, community and much more.
Like other layoffs resulting from city budget cuts, the library cuts have disproportionately impacted minorities and women. Lindall said 72 percent of the staff initially laid off were women and 77 percent were people of color, including 78 African Americans and 40 Latinos.
Library workers and patrons said they think the city administration is underestimating the important role that libraries play for city residents, even in the digital age. Mother Natasha Nicholes attended the Peopleâs Library protest and has beenÂ blogging about the library cuts, which were a major disappointment for her four kids, including her three-year-old daughter whose weekly story hour was cut.
The library is an especially valuable resource for Nicholes, since she homeschools her daughter, providing needed books and also a social outlet. As a child in Chicago,Â Nicholes spent almost every Saturday at the library with her younger sister. She toldÂ In These Times:
I wonât let this pass without saying something, especially since libraries played such a large role in my growing upâŚI donât think itâs a dying art, and I definitely donât think eReaders will replace the feel of having a book in your hand.
Lindall said the Monday morning cuts are a serious impediment to customer service, and he noted that several years ago city libraries were open 64 hours a week, compared to 44 now. He toldÂ In These Times:
Any reduction in hours is a barrier to accessâŚWeekday morning hours are especially popular with families and caregivers for preschool-aged children, seniors, shift workers and the unemployed. Monday mornings are the most crucial time for people looking for work, as new job postings come out in the Sunday paper but libraries are closed on Sundays. Unemployed folks line up at the branches waiting for the libraries to open on Monday morning, to look at the job listings in the Sunday paper or most commonly, to search them online, then submit resumes.
During a “Facebook town hall” I blogged about last month, Mayor Emanuel portrayed his executive order that restored some library hours as a way to bypass an out-of-control union. But Lindall saidÂ he thinks the union and library supporters should be thanked for the avoidance of more severe cuts:
In October, Mayor Emanuel introduced a budget that would have cut $10 million from the library budget, forcing 363 layoffs and untold reduction to hours. After a huge public outcry galvanized 28 aldermen to send a letter opposing these and other cuts, the mayor restored funds to rescind half his proposed layoffs.
As public criticism continued from all corners in January, he “found” money to restore more hours and positions. So he has taken two steps in the right direction. Our union and the people of the city want to work with him to finish the job, fully open and fully staff the branches.
Doe, whose first library job came after a promised position with the city park service helping special needs people fell through, said the mayorâs actions on the libraries donât jibe with his high-profile push to lengthen the school day at public schools. She says:
I donât know why he wants to extend the school day and short-change the library system. And with shorter library hours the longer school day makes it harder to get there on time. It doesnât make sense.
This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen, anÂ In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared inÂ The New York Times, theÂ Washington Post, theÂ Chicago Reader andÂ The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.