Staff at ten libraries in Lambeth, south London, walked out on Friday evening and are refusing to return over coronavirus fears.
Unison union members say that conditions mean the libraries are unsafe for staff and library users. The walkout came on the same day that the Tories announced that pubs and clubs would close to try and halt the spread of the virus.
“It was a hard decision because we care about our library users,” said one worker who walked out in Brixton. “But we also care about their safety and ours. We don’t have hand sanitiser and there are no wipes for the keyboards and touch screens.”
Tim is the Unison shop steward for libraries in Lambeth. He told Socialist Worker, “We had been in meetings with management discussing how we could run a reduced service.
“This would look at how we could still support housebound library users, people who needed to use computers for job applications and so on. We had an agreement that we would move to a service run for two hours a day to try and promote the service as best we could.
“But this morning, we were informed that the council gold command wanted all the libraries to stay open.”
Many other councils, including the bordering borough of Southwark, have closed their libraries due to coronavirus fears. The National Heads of Libraries organisation called libraries “vehicles of transmission” and called on them to be closed to keep people safe.
Workers are furious that Lambeth council seems prepared to put them and library visitors at risk.
“There’s no hand gel and no wipes,” said Tim. “In some places, people can’t go and wash their hands because that would mean leaving the library unsupervised.
“Yesterday we had someone with mental health issues sneezing on everyone. Some members of the public got angry and the police were called. The stress of the situation is too much for some people and staff are not safe.”
In a statement, Lambeth Unison said workers were walking out under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This provides workers with the right to withdraw from and refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe.
Workers are now refusing to go back to work as long as it remains an unsafe environment. They decided to take the action after discussing the situation via email and voting to walk out.
“We tried to talk to management about this all day, but they blanked us,” said Tim. “We’ve had a number of weekend workers email us and join the union.
“We won’t go back until they guarantee us safe working conditions.”
Shut Bromley libraries
The Unite union has slammed a decision to keep libraries open in Bromley, south London.
It said Greenwich Leisure Limited, which runs the libraries, should close them with full pay for staff.
The Central Library in Bromley is closed. But others, such as Burnt Ash Library, are still advertising events in the library over the coming week.
Meanwhile, university staff are challenging moves by management to keep campus libraries open during the coronavirus crisis.
Pressure from workers at some institutions, such as at Soas, University of London, has forced some libraries to close.
A petition that has been launched says keeping university libraries open “represents a severe public health threat to library workers, facilities staff, students and the public”.