April 10, 2012
Carl L. Sorrell is president of AFSCME Local 1215 in Chicago, Ill. AFSCME is fighting to protect our nation’s public libraries, and stop privatization efforts that will cut jobs and public resources. Sign the petition to protect 25,000 library workers and the thousands of libraries that will be destroyed by corporate greed at http://www.afscme.org/shush.
It’s National Library Workers Day, a time to recognize the importance of libraries in our communities and all that librarians and staff do to keep them running. But this year, with systems facing budget cuts across the country, it’s also a time to recognize that employees play a crucial role in protecting libraries, preserving services, and getting the public involved to defend them.
Here in Chicago, there was a big outcry last fall when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to cut $10 million from our library budget and lay off 363 employees. Even with all the negative talk about public employees and government spending, some people still were surprised about the drastic cuts. But my co-workers and I knew how much people depend on our branches and staff for so many things. We see people lining up to get in in the morning, waiting to use the computers to apply for jobs. Parents tell us how much their kids look forward to storytime. The libraries are a safe haven for everyone from senior citizens to high school students.
When our local union heard about the proposed cuts, we knew we needed to make sure the mayor heard those same voices that library employees hear each day. We started organizing, and on Halloween, we held storytime in front of the mayor’s office. Hundreds of people showed up, including kids in costumes, people with handmade signs, and of course library staff leading the story hour and delivering petitions signed through our website by more than 5,000 Chicago residents.
The mayor responded and much of the funding was restored.
But in January he began closing libraries completely on Monday. Once again our local union got the word out, both to our members and to library users. We held “People’s Library Hours” in front of the closed library branches. And we started a letter-writing campaign to the mayor.
Here’s what one sixth-grader wrote:
I love the library. I always have since I was a toddler. Although I mainly use it for reading just for fun, the libraries are extremely important for doing schoolwork. With the recent cuts to the library, I am having trouble getting to my branch library...Without the [library] pages, books I order take far more than a week to be delivered.
Another library lover wrote:
The library is an avenue of hope in tough economic times, and is there, like a friend, in good and bad times. To take it away in any respect is to destroy a priceless treasure.
After that, the mayor backed down further. But our 76 neighborhood branch libraries are still closed most Monday mornings, and all the library pages — about 100 people total — have been laid off. So our campaign continues with call-in days, more letters and actions at the mayor’s office. We’re going to keep at it until we get the hours and staffing fully restored.