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Library Staff Speak Out Against Uniforms and Management Bullying

Notts Indymedia | 12.03.2008 08:31 | Repression | Workers' Movements

Over a year ago, a rumour was doing the rounds in Nottingham libraries about the introduction of uniforms for library staff. The union reps looked into it and it was brushed aside as 'not going to happen for ages'. A couple of months ago they were surpised to hear that the uniforms would suddenly be introduced by March. No consultation, no advanced notice. So why does the council feel there is a need for uniformed staff in our libraries? And why does it threaten its own staff members with dismissal if they were to speak openly about these changes?

One library assistant did decide to speak out. Barbara, who's identity we cannot reveal, has worked in Nottingham's libraries for many years. She told Notts Indymedia in an interview about her anger over the decision by the City Council to introduce uniforms. In addition, she talked about the depletion of library service resources and the bully tactics employed by City Council managers to keep its staff in line.

Interview: Nottingham Library Assistant Speaks Out About Uniforms And Bully Tactics

From the newswire: Changes To The Library Service | Nottingham Library workers still resisting uniforms | Make nottingham Real, not PR stunts, uniforms & pool closures

Links: Nottingham Library Service | Unison | Evening post coverage: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Sign the petition in support | Download poster (PDF)

What atmosphere are we creating in our libraries? Pic by
What atmosphere are we creating in our libraries? Pic by

Has anyone ever heard of a library in this country (or any other) where its staff have to wear uniforms? It seems an absurd idea to come up with, but nothing should surprise us anymore with a council so obsessed with pushing its corporate branding. Let's have a look at whats going on here. In 2005, inspectors from the Audit Commission payed the city a visit to assess the council's improvements on accessibility of services. The Audit Commission is a public body and was established under the Local Government Finance Act of 1982, to appoint auditors to all local authorities in England and Wales and keep an eye on their spending of public money. In the report by the auditors, named 'Access to services' they point out the 'non wearing of a standard uniform' by reception staff. The Executive Board of the City Council then decided in September 2005 upon a strategy to introduce uniforms for 'reception staff', for example in museums, council offices, leisure centres and at the tourist information point. This strategy is known as the 'Corporate Uniform Project'.

So what did the report by the Audit Commission actually say? The report pointed out clear shortcomings in the accessibility of council services. Extract from the report which makes mention of uniforms:

" The council is currently providing a variable level of access across the city. This is illustrated across the city in a number of ways: poor physical access at the social services reception at Clifton; variable standards between the housing offices at Clifton and Bilborough; variable opening hours at different receptions and council buildings; variable waiting times at different council locations. Customers at Lawrence House and the treasury reception have traditionally experienced long waiting times with waiting periods of 40 minutes not uncommon at busy times. Housing aid, Lawrence House and trading standards areas often have customers waiting for up to 10 minutes; telephone callers to housing benefits are dealt with through a far more efficient call centre than other parts of the council; and reception staff across the council do not wear a standard uniform or give a standard greeting which again reflects a level of inconsistency. " The entire report can be read online here.

So there is a mention of the 'non wearing of a standard uniform by reception staff'. This is something we picked up on after councillor Trimble mentioned it in a council meeting on 4 February after another councillor questioned him about the library uniform issue. What councillor Trimble fails to mention is that the Audit Commission didn't mention anything else about uniforms in the rest of its report and nothing about it can be found in their recommendations which were attached.

Back to the Corporate Uniform Project. Under this project over 300 people get tucked in uniforms in 3 phases over a couple of years and just the uniforms for library staff will cost around £25,000. The first phase mainly included reception staff at City Council offices such as the Guildhall, Severns House and the front line staff at the Housing Benefit department. This part of the plan was concluded in May 2007. Then came the second phase which included museum staff and those in working Housing Aid offices. The third and final phase was hoped to be introduced in March this year. The library staff is by far the biggest group of council employees to be dressed up as part of the Corporate Uniform Project. In light of the minor mention of the lack of uniforms in the report by the Audit Commission back in 2005, which the council argues set them onto this project, it is questionable if this is the real reason behind the introduced changes. Could it be that someone at the council picked up on the one comment about uniforms in the report and thought it a good oppertunity to push the council's corporate branding even further?

When we interviewed Barbara, who has been a library assistant for many years, she explaines that the council have already made various changes in the libraries to tighten their grip on making sure council propanganda is utalized is every possible way; " Things seem to be getting more centralized, I now work in a community library so we're quite often left to our own devices which is part of what I like about the job. You see something needs doing and you get on with it. But there seem to be more and more directives coming from central [management] at the moment. [...] for example we used to make our own posters, 'sorry this computer is broken' or 'we're closing over Easter' or a little notice like that. But now you can't have them without saying that you're proud and ambitious and cleaner and safer. You've got to use all the logos. [...] It's all becoming far more corporate. "

Through other sources we've learned that libraries used to get leaflets and brochures delivered, and library staff could decide themselves which to display and when to remove them. Now management has to approve all leaflets, and sends out lists of when to take them down again. All libraries have to have standard messages on their answerphones, and give a standard greeting when answering the phone. We've learned that recently all libraries were emailed with a template of what to say when someone wants to order a book! First they can't choose what to wear, now they can't choose what to say. Seems like the thought police are only just a few meters behind!

So the latest in all this is the introduction of the uniforms. Barbara explains; " I was told about it through rumours which is how we get all our information. Somebody will say; 'have you heard that, have you heard that'? But that was over a year and a half ago. And we kicked up a stink and were told to 'write what you feel about it', so we did, but it was ignored. Unison have now [issued] a grievance which means the uniforms have been put back by 2 months, while there’s supposed to be a consultation. [...] It's not just library staff, I don't know if you've noticed but all the reception stuff at the Guildhall and where ever, they've all been uniformed. [...] And other people aren't happy but they've at least been consulted. We weren't consulted, we were just told this. And apparently they really gotta do it or they'll just loose face. "

The senior library management makes it very clear that no one is to speak about these changes in public and/or to the press. In a previous case, Sarah Roy, who worked for the welfare advice department, spoke out about the council's controversial decision to merge the city's welfare rights department into the management of the housing benefit service back in September 2006. In that situation employees were only told about the decision 2 or 3 days before it was implemented and were told in an email to 'keep quiet' about it. Sarah Roy was subsequently fired over the issue. Read this feature article for more info.

In this instance the situation seems similar. Barbara says she feels bullied by senior management as they are making it clear that it will become a 'disciplinary matter' if anyone speaks out about the issues at stake. She says; " We do feel bullied. We do feel bullied because we have been told we are not allowed to talk to the public about the uniform issue. Officially the public isn't suppose to know about the uniforms coming in. [...] But yes, we are told that it will be a disciplinary matter and we could be sacked if we discuss this or had any kind of protest about it. Oh yes, there have been emails [going] around saying that if any media come in and want to discuss anything to do with the council library service we must not talk to them, we've got to direct them to management. " This is an interesting stand that the management seem to take as Barbara is adamant she never signed any confidentiality agreement.

Besides the bullying and the other issues concerning the workers in our libraries we should all be concerned when politicians are looking to take over the neutral space which the libraries have been for many years for their gain in this political propaganda circus. How far will it have to get? " I don't know if this is true but I've heard a story of one asylum seeker leaving the library saying 'aren't you gonna search me'? because he was used to that kind of treatment where he came from. That is the kind of atmosphere that uniformed staff will provoke. One of the lovely things about the job is the relationship we build up with the users, some of whom we've known for years and years. Some of them were children when we started and now have children of their own. And there are old people who've been coming in a lot. A lot of the old people come in for a chat rather than for books, that's one of the lovely things about the job. It's the personal contact and we feel that they're friends and we're their friends and it won't be like that if we're wearing unforms. We won't be ourselves, we will just be the face of the council. "

Are you up for supporting your library staff? Some ideas of what you can do:

  • Sign the petition
  • Download the poster and display it
  • Go into the library and tell the staff that you support them
  • Tell your friends and family about the issue
  • Get together with others and plan an action to keep the issue alive in the (local) media
  • Write to your MP and local councillor
  • Write to the Evening Post to ensure the issue is kept alive

Notts Indymedia

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Safety at work

12.03.2008 20:34

This library uniform is also a safety problem. I work in a community library too, and because there are a lot more women than men, we can be very vulnerable. Sometimes we are targets, and I'm sure this will be worse when we're in uniform.


Indymedia as Council Watchdog

13.03.2008 09:05

Well done to Nottingham Indymedia for again doing the council's job of telling people what they are up to. They should give us some money!

Arthur Thorpe

All of us

13.03.2008 11:29

Remember, we're all Indymedia. We can all research and expose the councils workings. All Indymedia is, is a tool to facilitate disctributing that information. In the end it all boils down to individuals taking the initiative to look into stuff and publish it..


People as billboards

13.03.2008 18:45

Shouldn't we congratulate the council? Now all the dustbin lorries are ambitious and the bins are proud, there's not many surfaces left to plaster with corporateeze. People are the obvious solution! Start with council staff, who should wear slogans like "Cleaner" over their entire bodies at all times. Once the success of this pilot has been determined, residents (starting with the poorer areas) could be required to wear City logos on their clothing at certain times. This could be built up until the entire population of Nottingham (except, of course, the bosses and managers, who must of course be exempt) wears the corporate image, and perhaps also sings the Council's motivational song together. (Any composers out there?)
This will improve customer satisfaction.

Marketing Opportunity

Books not uniforms

13.03.2008 22:10

The 2007/8 Service Plan for Nottingham Libraries on the Council’s web site is 53 pages of meaningless management speak, but if you search for "uniform", you'll find that uniforms are supposed to achieve the “creation of identity” and “increase in customer satisfaction”. How is forcing people to wear uniforms that they hate going to do this exactly? I never have trouble identifying the friendly and helpful staff at my local library; my "customer satisfaction"
would be improved if the libraries stopped throwing out perfectly good books - if there was less empty space and more shelves with books. Also according to this "plan": "...The service seeks economy wherever possible" - then surely the first economy measure is to ditch the daft uniform scheme.

Bill Farquharson

You can fill in "have your say" forms

14.03.2008 16:14

Thank you Indymedia for publisizing this problem.
Libraries have forms called "Have your say". If anyone wants to have their say about libraries or something, get a form and tell them what you think. You can post it without a stamp. Lots of us in libraries are worried about telling the public about all this because of our jobs.

Harry Potter

Support Library Workers

15.03.2008 16:47

Now we know why the costly and not wholly necessary alteration of the Market Square into a vast, flat expanse; so that Fuhrer Frater can address serried ranks of uniformed Council workers from the balcony of the Council House as they gaze up at him adoringly. All library workers who have told the Council where to stick their expensive corporate nonsense deserve our full support. Good for them!

Vi Jessop

Express yourself

17.03.2008 18:34

comment forms are in all libraries & can be done online via council website. Express yourself & comment away, maybe add something about transition town& peak oil too & printing our own money like Argentinian cities did to survive recent crisis.Lets be nice, save real anger4 nazis if necessary


Prison uniforms

20.03.2008 09:40

I work in a community library too, and I completely agree with Barbara's comments. From the start, many of us have tried to voice our dissent, but we have been met with a great wall of silence, or veiled threats not to engage the public. Not surprising, since the public will be shelling out £25,000 for the privilege of seeing a great band of very unhappy library staff wearing a nasty grey uniform which wouldn't look out of place in a prison!


They do more than stamp books!

20.03.2008 19:16

£25,000!!!! That's outrageous! The staff in my local library are great, and I don't want to see them wearing these uniforms either. I don't see them as reception staff. They've helped me in the past with all sorts of problems and queries. They've even taught me how to use a computer. If it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn't be able to write this! I think they deserve more.


A suggestion for a uniform for library workers

21.03.2008 17:47

What about this?

Yoony Form

Culture of fear and intimidation?

21.03.2008 17:57

Ken Brand is right to say "I understand library staff cannot campaign on this issue, an embargo, I consider, on freedom of speech or human rights." (See his letter, Evening Post, 19 March. This isn't only a matter of whether or not someone wears a uniform, it's to do with them not being allowed to talk about it! And if library workers can't talk about their situations, does this also apply to other council staff? Is there a culture of fear and intimidation?

Speaking out

Update: Result of Unison consultation was to oppose uniforms

21.03.2008 23:55

The result of a Unison consultation with members was to unanimously oppose uniforms for library staff. This was supported by grassroots surveys conducted by staff.

UNISON proposed:
to unanimously oppose the wearing of corporate uniform
to consider a dress code within corporate colours
to consider another form of attire ie; apron, overjacket, gilet in corporate colour
request to disband the current 'uniform group' and to reselect the make up of that group to better reflect the workforce affected by the wearing of uniforms

Unison are now awaiting a response from management, and have informed management that if the proposals are turned down, there will be an official ballot with members for the refusal to wear a uniform.

Some staff are bemused by the idea of aprons, but are waiting to see what will happen.


sourcing of uniforms

25.03.2008 13:39

Interesting to see the proposed cost of the uniforms that will be coming out of public money, I would just like to add that according to someone I know within the council that these uniforms have already been ordered and made. And not even from a local Nottingham business, they have been ordered from a company in Suffolk.

City council proud of Nottingham!!! Yeah right!

Ian (Sneinton)

Better spent funding.

25.03.2008 14:47

The cash would be better spent increasing security within smaller inner city branch libraries, in order to prevent library staff being abused and attacked by the delinquent youth of Nottingham, who seem to use them as a fighting ground.... I am talking particularly of the one in Sneinton, but i am sure others have this issue also.... improvements on youth facilities could be s start, or a canny idea to put it toward the Vic Centre Baths... ??
Hmmmmm???!?! What are the council up to now i wonder...
Also as another thought....
Uniforms make people less approachable to some.


Hurrah - Unison have won us the right to abandon our dignity!

17.04.2008 18:10

After consultation with management, Unison claims a victory!

The library uniforms will now be optional - and library assistants not wearing uniforms will have to wear their own clothes, bought at their own expense, but in the same colours as the uniforms, with a fine level of detail as to what will and won't be permitted. The lucky workers have another chance to participate in their own oppression! The colours are white, grey and black. Thank you Unison, for not calling a ballot but deciding that your members want to be told what to wear.

If this is a victory, then whatever would defeat have looked like?

Still, at least that nasty colour won't invade our libraries any more. A solid victory for common sense!


No, nothing has been agreed yet

23.04.2008 12:06

Unison and management have not agreed anything yet. Unison is still pushing for what members want - not to be told what to wear.