library bosses appear to have made a concession toward allowing staff to
wear their own choice of clothes - but on the proviso that they are
based on the colour grey. Unsurprisingly, staff are still livid about
this. Gadfly investigates...
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologue, ‘A Chip in the Sugar’, features a character called Mr Turnbull. Turnbull is the nasty of the piece, a man of twisted and savage sensibility who eschews all things independent and unique in favour of the crass and the bland. When, for example, the narrator and his mother seek elevenses at their usual café, a plain but classy place where the staff sport their own clothes and ‘look as if they’re doing it just for the fun of it’, Turnbull steers them on to a more vulgar venue, an eatery where everything is gaudily done up in corporate colour - waitresses in red, plates red, lampshades red, and, most offensive of all, ‘those plastic sauce things got up to look like tomatoes’.
Although Turnbull is a fictional character, a crashing grotesque, elements of his banausic worldview are real enough and reflected in the recent policymaking of Nottingham City Council. Perhaps the most telling exemplification is its proposal to introduce corporate uniforms (of all things) to public library assistants, and so rid staff of their traditional independent dress code. In its 2007 ‘Third Quarter Performance Report’, the Council suggested introducing library uniforms ‘to enable customers to easily identify staff for help and advice’. I suspect that the policy wonks who drew up and supported this proposal know very little about libraries.
Libraries are not places commonly associated with the dress of officialdom and the maintenance of corporate identity. Part of the appeal of libraries is that they are one of the few remaining public spaces yet to undergo corporate encroachment. Reassuringly non-official, they are also places of personal contact and support. The work of public library staff has never been purely bibliothecarial: it is also inescapably and uniquely social. For some members of the public, their chitchats with staff might be one of their few, if only, regular verbal exchanges with other people, exchanges made all the more personally significant for their taking place in a relaxed, informal setting.
How did this uniform policy originate? Where did it come from? And how close is it to being rolled out? It appears to have emerged suddenly and unobtrusively, as though to ensure, dare I speculate, its smooth implementation, sidestepping staff and public resistance. There has been, for instance, little public pronouncement or discussion, with mention of the proposal confined only to the odd clause in abstruse reports and policy documents tucked away on the Council’s website. The contents of a PDF file titled ‘Third Quarter Performance Report’ are unlikely to be widely and readily digested by the public.
That Nottingham City Council initially sought to introduce library uniforms against the will of its employees, without meaningfully consulting them, is powerfully borne out by the experiences of library staff themselves. It’s testing enough for workers to talk openly about their grievances: to do so is potentially to risk disciplinary action.
So it is not surprising that, when I seek out local library assistants in order to gauge their strength of feeling, they should seem a little leery of me. Although also no doubt cheerily masking her discomfiture, one woman asks whether I am, in fact, a representative of the Council come to monitor and report back on staff dissent. Others politely refer me to Customer Services or some other official point of contact. However, a few are happy to communicate their personal opinions, providing, understandably, that I do not disclose their identities.
I’m struck, in particular, by the insights of one library assistant. She informs me that the Council had hoped that there’d be little resistance to staff being outfitted, that ‘we’d wear uniforms without a murmur’.
She speaks passionately, if quietly (this is, after all, a library), of the inappropriateness of the designs that were trailed to staff - garments branded with the shouting blazonry of Nottingham City Council.
And their impracticality. Knee-high A-line skirts, short see-through blouses which rise revealingly when one is engaged in lifting work or re-organising bookshelves.
‘To add insult to injury’, she continues, ‘the Council logos are all in the most unseemly places – like on the backside.’
Another staff member points out that the uniforms are intended only for library assistants, not, oddly, librarians and other staff who also come into contact with the public.
‘A kind of occupational apartheid,’ I venture.
‘Well, sitting behind a lending desk, I’m going to feel awkward in uniform - especially with my colleague next to me dressed less formally’.
‘Total incompetence’. This is Pete Savage, Regional Organiser for Unison East Midlands, one of the unions representing Nottingham City library staff. I’ve asked him about the way in which the library management went about implementing its uniforms policy.
Although Unison doesn’t have an official line on uniforms, Savage tells me that management was naïve if it thought that library staff were unquestioningly going to take to outfits – particularly the inappropriate designs they had in mind.
However, despite the initial ineptitude, management is now, according to Savage, ‘pulling it back’. They are, he informs me, now consulting over a dress code, backing down from their original uniform prescription. The code involves the staff either choosing to wear the outfits provided by the Council or wearing their own garments, based around the colour grey (but no denim), although the exact details of the set up have still to be finalised and taken to members for approval.
A few days later, I make contact with Barbara, a Nottingham library worker who, in a recent Notts Indymedia interview, eloquently spoke out about uniforms and the bully tactics employed by Council managers. Barbara is still profoundly disquieted by the Council’s proposal to standardise staff dress. Although some members of staff are prepared to accept uniforms, the majority of library assistants are against the policy, believing it to constitute an ‘unacceptable change in conditions of employment’.
‘When we were asked whether or not we’d accept a dress code, the concept was never defined – it could have been ‘no beach clothes’ but has been taken to be basically the uniform in more comfortable fabrics, at our own expense.’
Barbara also points out that, bizarrely, the uniforms proposed for library staff do not even correspond in design and colour with those issued to workers in other City Council service areas. This peculiar inconsistency, Barbara says, ‘demolishes the ‘brand image’ argument.’
When I write to Michael Williams, Corporate Director of Community and Culture, asking him to update me on the details of the uniforms policy, I receive no reply. You would have thought that a senior figure of a council that visually bawls its achievements from every prominent civic space, that prides itself on openness and public interactivity, would have been eager to share with me the intricacies of a proposal that profoundly affects one of our central public services.
Surprised, yet undaunted, I contact Library and Information Service management. But there’s no information. Instead I’m passed on to Customer Services, from which I receive a polite, if understated, response informing me that uniforms were part of a strategy agreed by Councillors back in 2005.
The uniforms project was apparently a response to an inspection report by the Audit Commission which identified that ‘reception staff across the council do not wear a standard uniform or give a standard greeting [sic] which again reflects a level of inconsistency’.
That’s nice to know, but, of course, it’s by no means the complete, complex picture. I want to know, for instance, as no doubt would many other library users, just exactly how much did the uniforms cost? Would not, rather obviously, the money have been better spent on books rather than on outfits which not all staff will actually end up wearing? Were the uniforms produced in the Nottingham region – purchased from and thus supporting local business? I understand that the Council has a policy of sourcing, in principle, from local suppliers. In the matter of uniforms, has it adhered to this principle? I’m led to believe that the garments were manufactured in East Anglia, although I’d be delighted if the Council is able to contradict me.
At the time of writing, I have yet to receive a reply. Nor do I expect one – or at least a response that fully answers my queries without further referring me to inspection reports or policy documents. These are difficult, if natural, questions which leave little room for extolling the virtues of public image consistency or the logic of corporate values.
The consultation period concerning the dress code is scheduled to conclude at the end of May this year. Sadly, it seems inevitable that our library staff will be compelled to dress themselves up in what by all accounts is an odious outfit or, if they are fortunate enough to possess their own clothes which approximate to this drab design, to adhere to a starchy dress code. Whatever the outcome, something of the relaxed and unimposing will have been lost from our libraries.
Not so long ago, I took out a classical music CD from a local library. The assistant who served me (partly attired, incidentally, in forbidden denim) spoke fervently and knowledgably about my choice. He envied the pleasure that was coming my way, communicated his enthusiasm for the composer and suggested follow up pieces for me to listen to.
We spoke not as two participants in a service encounter, but as two individuals with a shared interest. I saw him not, in any way, as a public official, but as someone with an infectious passion for music, and, significantly, someone freely and generously able to articulate that passion to me.
I wonder how many staff members, soon to be sheathed in the garb of officialdom, will feel similarly able and encouraged to speak so personally with the public? Sheathed indeed. For there is something faintly prophylactic about the introduction of uniforms to library staff, as though workers must be confined behind a barrier, or first pass through a corporate filter, before being introduced to the public. Heaven forefend that the real person beneath be exposed!
I believe that the Council considered its library uniforms proposal to be little more than a cosmetic adjustment, completely overlooking, or at least chronically underestimating, the profound influence that such a sartorial intervention is likely to have on the identity of library staff and the library service itself. As with many other people concerned about the changing face of our public services, I applaud the library workers who have resisted corporate uniforms, who refuse to be transformed into what one wry commentator describes as ‘walking billboards for Council slogans’.
More broadly, I see them taking part in what Paul Kingsnorth refers to as the ‘The Battle Against the Bland’, the fight back against the stultifying process of corporate infiltration which steadily continues to produce an increasingly sterile and standardised country, a place becoming ever devoid of distinctiveness and individuality.
A place Mr Turnbull would almost certainly approve of.