Library staff refuse to be shooshed

Australian Services Union members in Geelong’s libraries system are fighting for better wages and conditions. This is the culmination of two years of rank-and-file-driven activism that has resulted in a surge in union membership and in democratic participation in the union.

The Geelong Regional Library Corporation (GRLC) oversees seventeen libraries and two mobile libraries in the Geelong area, and is rated as the best public library service in Victoria. But this prestige conceals a troubling fact: the system operates on the low wages and insecurity of its workforce.

“We’re ranked number one”, says Alex (not their real name), one of the union members. “But in terms of wages and conditions we’re just about at the bottom. For example, the starting salaries for entry-level customer service staff, who make up the majority of staff, are 45th lowest out of 49 public library services in Victoria.”

GRLC is overseen by the second highest paid library corporation CEO in Victoria, Patti Manolis OAM. What does “OAM” stand for? After winning the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2019, Manolis insists on including OAM at the end of her name in all company emails.

After the expiry of GRLC’s old enterprise agreement last June, management offered a four-year agreement with pay increases of 0 percent in the first year, 0 percent in the second year, 1 percent in the third year and 1 percent in the fourth year—a significant pay cut once inflation is factored in. They also wanted to abolish Saturday penalty rates, dramatically reduce evening penalty rates and force staff to be available for more weekend and night shift work. This was particularly irksome for staff, many of whom have childcare responsibilities.

Negotiations stalled for five months. When union reps took management’s offers back to the members, the members repeatedly voted the offers down. Management, likely assuming that union delegates were lying about the desires of their members, eventually initiated their own ballot, controlled by them and including non-union members.

Every staff member was subjected to a mandatory two-hour “briefing session”, as well as weekly emails sent by the CEO and a glossy seventeen-page “Information Pack”. Staff were warned that this would be the “final offer” and that, if they voted against it, worse offers would follow—along with the possibility of redundancies. Posters with the official GRLC logo instructing staff to “Vote yes” began to appear all over worksites.

Unfortunately for management, library staff were unimpressed—they voted that deal down too. Union delegates then called a mass meeting in which members voted to condemn management’s “bullying behaviour” and voted unanimously to ballot for protected industrial action.

Despite this significant win of the “no” vote, there is still a long way to go. Management backed down from their initial attempts to eliminate Saturday penalty rates, but their pay offer still stands at a measly 1 percent, 1.4 percent, 1.6 percent and 1.8 percent. Managers still want to cut evening penalty rates and force library staff to work more nights and weekends.

Staff want wage parity with staff at other nearby libraries. This would require an 8 percent increase for all staff in the first year of a new agreement. They also want basic conditions that other libraries already enjoy, including minimum staffing levels and full pay for an early finish on Christmas Eve, along with basic safety measures like a full-time security guard and free, accessible car parking for staff.

Library staff in Geelong were not always this fired up. According to Alex, the union had an inactive membership of only 50 or so in a workforce of about 160 across the library system. Union members had no experience challenging management, and most didn’t really know what the enterprise bargaining process was about.

For the last two years, a handful of union activists have worked hard to turn things around. “From the beginning, we’d call mass meetings at the union offices”, Alex says. “We’d talk to anyone that showed up about issues in their libraries and try to turn them into activists.”

The turning point came in the middle of last year. “When the pandemic hit and Victoria went into lockdown, the entire casual staff was stood down for months without pay”, Alex says. “That was very upsetting and disillusioning for most people. We [the union] had our biggest mass meeting to date.”

That meeting wrote a collective letter of protest to management, which was dismissed by the head of HR with a short email. Library staff had another, angrier meeting the next month. According to Alex, at this meeting the usually “polite and diplomatic” staff resolved to conduct a public campaign.

An online crowd-funding campaign was set up to raise money for casual staff. Thousands of flyers were also letterboxed throughout Geelong asking people to write to the Library Board in protest. This public campaign embarrassed the City of Greater Geelong to such an extent that it was suddenly able to find an extra $180,000 in the budget to give to casual staff. During the second lockdown, casuals were provided with work instead of being stood down without pay.

These victories gave workers confidence, and the intransigence of management made them angry. Union density has doubled to 60 percent, and delegates now have an activist network that reaches into the most important libraries.

“Twelve months ago, the staff wanted to be so diplomatic”, Alex says. “They didn’t want to do anything that might be seen as ‘rowdy’ or ‘unruly’. They just wanted to write a polite letter. Now people unanimously voted for protected industrial action without even needing much discussion. If anything, they were just impatient to get to the vote.

“My workmates are usually so passive and unassuming, but they are beginning to find their voice. And their voice is angry. I almost can’t remember if I’ve heard some of them speak a word before, and now those same people are railing against management at union meetings.”

In an era of rock bottom levels of industrial action, hollowed-out, shrinking union organisation and endless concessions to the bosses, this dispute stands out. It’s defiant, it’s democratic, and it’s driven by rank-and-file activists.

“You can so easily replicate this elsewhere”, Alex insists. “We just started calling meetings, and lo and behold people started to join up and get involved. There’s nothing special about us. It just takes a bit of organising and politics. People everywhere are itching for someone to lead a fight.”

Geelong Regional Libraries staff are currently balloting to take industrial action and are asking for unionists at other workplaces to send solidarity photos declaring their support. Send your photos to louise@redflag.org.au, and we’ll pass them on.

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