Rahm Emanuel and public sector union play hardball over Chicago library hours

Across the US, financially strapped local governments are cutting back on library hours. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has reduced the libraries' week to five days amid a stand-off with a public union.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at the opening of the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting, in June 2011, in Chicago. Across the US, financially strapped local governments, like Chicago, are cutting back on library hours.

A standoff between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a public sector union has reduced opening hours at the city’s public libraries, shortening the system’s week from six days to five.

The dispute is not unique to Chicago: All across the United States, municipalities seeking to fill gaps in their budgets are routinely cutting hours and staff in local library systems, a trend that critics say impacts the most vulnerable population in a troubled economy.

“All local government agencies are vulnerable to cuts in this economic climate, but libraries need to be sure they’re telling the story of how they are part of the solution to the economic crisis,” says Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association (ALA), a non-profit trade association based in Chicago.

The Chicago Public Library system is being forced to shutter 76 of its 79 branches on Mondays, reducing hours to 40 a week. The new schedule went into effect this week, a decision dictated by Mayor Emanuel’s office late last week.

Emanuel is accusing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, which represents library employees, of using the library issue as “a bargaining chip” and refusing to accede to concessions on “a host of other subjects.”

According to the Chicago Public Library marketing director, Ruth Lednicer, 176 employees were laid off as a result of the Monday closings, which the system is considering “temporary … until further notice.”

“We’re hopeful the city and union reach an agreement,” Ms. Lednicer says.

In his budget address to the city council last fall, Emanuel said he wanted the library service hours cut by 8 hours and proposed doing so on Monday and Friday mornings, a half-day schedule he said would have the least impact on the public. Last week, he opted for a full-day closure on Monday, but called it “avoidable.” He said the reduction in hours was designed to save the city $7 million.

The switch, from two half-day closures to a full day, infuriated some members of the city council who say they were misled by the mayor.

“That’s not what was proposed or voted on. It’s completely contrary. We need to sit down quickly and get back to the original agreement, which was keep those libraries open” every day, Alderman Scott Waguespack told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

AFSCME Council 31 Spokesperson Anders Lindall rejects Emanuel’s charge that the unions are not cooperating to keep libraries open and adds that the city, under union rules, is not contractually allowed to reduce hours per day.

Mr. Lindall called the Monday closure a contract violation and says the union wants the lost jobs and reduced hours restored. He says the library system already suffered significant budget cuts, reduced hours and layoffs two years ago under former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“We don’t think the people want the union and the city to sit down and figure out the best way to cut access to libraries. The people want an agreement to keep the libraries fully open,” he says.

Cutting hours and shuttering branches is trending nationally, according to data from the ALA. In 2011, 16 percent of all libraries in the US were forced to reduce hours. One year earlier, just 4.5 percent of libraries reduced hours.

Library budgets are also vulnerable. In fiscal year 2011, 60 percent of all US libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets.

The industry is so alarmed by the budget slashing, it is a keynote topic at the association’s midwinter meeting next week in Dallas. Ms. Raphael, the ALA president, says she sympathizes with the nation’s mayors, who have the difficult burden of finding cuts, especially because property tax revenues are shrinking.

But she adds that, in addition to access to books, audiovisual media, and other materials, libraries provide essential services for job seekers, such as free online computer use. According to ALA data, 88 percent of libraries provided job databases and other resources to job seekers in 2011.

“For every hour a library is closed, it makes people who don’t have access to those resources more vulnerable,” she says. She says that although libraries faced cuts through earlier economic downturns, particularly in the aftermath of 9-11, this current climate is “so much worse … in terms of the length and depth of the recession.”

Libraries are facing cutbacks at a time when public libraries are becoming more reliant than ever on funding from local governments rather than states, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an organization in Washington that provides policy research for libraries and museums.

The organization’s October 2011 survey shows that public library funding from local governments increased nearly 33 percent from 2000 to 2009, while state funding decreased 28 percent. Local governments accounted for 84 percent of public library funding across the US in 2009; in Illinois, local municipalities provided 88 percent.

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