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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 10, 2012, 11:23 am

Closing Time at Chicago Libraries Hits Women and Minorities Hard

BY Kari Lydersen

A young patron reads at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago.   (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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 told 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"—oases of calm and knowledge.

Doe’s mother worked in a city library, and since her parents were divorced, 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 intense 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 cuts—along with planned layoffs at city mental health clinics and Chicago O’Hare International Airport—have become part of a protracted and bitter battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and public-sector unions, as Emanuel has blamed AFSCME for forcing schedule cuts and using the library system as a bargaining chip.

The union held "People’s 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. The 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 services…She 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 didn’t walk out the door sooner…

Doe, 30, is desperately hoping to be called back to her library job. She has been applying for other positions—"anything and everything," including food service at the city’s Wrigley Field baseball stadium—but she hasn’t 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 told In These Times:

It’s not just a job, it’s something I really enjoyed. Even though it was low-status I felt really good and made some good money…Now I feel like I’m work-sick. I’m one of those people who like to work their butts off.

AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said Doe’s attitude is typical:

People don’t 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 People’s Library protest and has been 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, Nicholes spent almost every Saturday at the library with her younger sister. She told In These Times:

I won’t let this pass without saying something, especially since libraries played such a large role in my growing up…I don’t think it’s a dying art, and I definitely don’t 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 told In These Times:

Any reduction in hours is a barrier to access…Weekday 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 said 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 mayor’s actions on the libraries don’t jibe with his high-profile push to lengthen the school day at public schools. She says:

I don’t 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 doesn’t make sense.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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