Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion - Oscar Wilde

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The 'hollowing out' of Waltham Forest libraries

I was asked to write a guest article for the blog "Don't Privatise Libraries".... copied here below:
In 2010 Waltham Forest Labour controlled council voted through budget cuts that amounted to £65 million.

I lost my job in Janurary 2012, along with 20 other people, I worked in the Library Services for over 10 years. As a consequence of these cuts all the small libraries in the borough are now closed two days a week and the library service has been merged with other departments.

Managements tactics were designed to fool the public as to what was actually being proposed and confuse oppositional elements in the community - they didn't fool us.

The proposals brought the whole of the Library service under a new generic and all encompassing directorate misnamed "Residents First" . This new "Residents First" department they said would be delivered from library buildings, in effect keeping the shell of the service ie the building, but completely destroying the library service within.

The senior managers who drove through these cuts have subsequently had their pay increased, whilst older, more experienced and more expensive staff have been made compulsory redundant. A whole army of cheap, casual labour has been recruited to implement these new services, I'm told by a former a colleague that adult social care and children's services are soon to be delivered out of library buildings. The library service is being cannibalised from all angles and the leaders of the trade unions ,despite the members wishes, have not led a fightback.

I was a Unison library steward and joint convener for the department for most of my time in Libraries. We tried to fightback , I ran an indicative ballot in August 2011, the summer before we lost our jobs and 95% of the membership voted in favour of strike action to stop the job cuts. Unison's leadership in London prevaricated, dragged their heels etc and the momentum was lost. Like so much of Unison's non- strategy, they missed the moment, either deliberately or otherwise and the right time to fight back passed. This strategy of "waiting for a Labour Government" has been unmitigated disaster- 375, 000 people have lost their jobs.

The failure to lead a battle around compulsory redundancies within Unison has allowed managers to drive a layer of activists and socialists like myself out of their jobs and out of the trade unions- thus silencing critical voices. I am currently taking my case to an employment tribunal,representing myself as Unison failed to even help me with that.

I not only worked in Libraries but I believed in them, I saw my job as worthwhile and important - I didn't always enjoy my job but I felt useful, not an easy thing to feel. I believe that within the library service the kernel of how learning, reading and culture could be, is to be found . Stripped bare, Libraries represent the nationalisation of books and information and considering the antipathy towards nationalisation it's amazing they've lasted so long. In all my time in Libraries I felt like people were apologising for still existing, particularly in discussions with managers and councillors. I always categorically refused to apologise.

As a life long Socialist I firmly believe that it doesn't have to be like this. There is £800 billion stashed away in the banks, if we released that money and immediately ploughed it back into the infrastructure, libraries could benefit from a renaissance. The enthusiasm for them is deep within the publics' consciousness and the esteem in which they are held probably equates with the NHS. No wonder JK Rowling described the Library service as "The NHS for the mind". New technology need not be used to undermine Libraries or be an excuse to merge them. If we had a far sighted government we could be part of a national literacy strategy which truly worked in tandem with educational establishments and enthusiastically pioneered reading for pleasure.

Libraries by their very nature are non coercive places, generally no-one makes you use a library , look at the way children enjoy libraries, many of them in a way that they don't enjoy school.

Library buildings are often rooted in working class communities, people see them as a feature of the landscape no matter how bleak that landscape may be. They sometimes seemed to me like those stone churches built on the edge of cliffs on Greek Islands or on the top of Scottish mountains. They seemed to have weathered the most hostile of terrains and somehow always survived . I read somewhere that there are more libraries in working class areas than branches of McDonald's and more people visit Libraries throughout any one Saturday than visit football matches- I'm not sure how true that is but it feels like it is.

All of human life can found within them. I've seen people have nervous break downs in libraries, I've helped women find out how to flee domestic violence, I've phoned elderly readers who lived alone and I haven't seen for a bit. I've watched street kids unknowingly self educate themselves and helped numerous people starting out on various courses find their way around. I've run reading groups, assisted school visits, listen to children read and have become so obsessed with enquiries that I've pursued books and information on behalf of a reader for over a week! All of the things that I have listed above are social acts, the reader could have done these things themselves but it is the social provision of information and literature that make libraries libraries.

Human beings are social animals and will always gravitate towards others to share experiences, the ebook and Internet may have blossomed but so too have spoken word performances, book clubs, poetry nights and literary festivals.

I was a late reader, I sometimes think that accounts for my ropey spelling and poor grammar but it was the existence of Mildmay Library that allowed me to read in my own way and in my own time, free from the red pen of a teacher and provide the space for me to do so. I will feel forever grateful.

The Library ideal is thoroughly modern, utterly inspired and perfectly logical. In these Dark Ages of cuts I believe that we have to keep the flame of library enlightenment burning , no matter how difficult that may be. I am currently involved with "Save Wood Street Library campaign" which aims to prevent the library being moved to a shop front in the square and the old building being sold off or developed around, I would encourage everybody to become part of the broader fight to keep these lighthouses of knowledge alight.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Why I'm Critical of Foodbanks

When the people at "The Food Bankers" asked me to write a guest post for their blog, I thought I'd post it here too.

Nancy Taaffe speaking out
Fighting the cuts!

“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist” Helder Camara, Liberation Theologian

Every Saturday the Anti-Cuts Union has a stall in Walthamstow campaigning against cuts. The Labour Council passed a budget that has taken £65 million away from local services. I lost my job in a library, a job which I had for over 10 years. Children and young peoples’ services have been decimated by cuts, with some services, such as careers, being cut by almost a third. The three main political parties say it wasn’t their fault, that there isn’t any money but…


  A report in The Guardian last year stated that there is currently £750 billion locked away in banks by the rich who see no immediate way to make a profit and so they just sit on the money and let it collect interest, £120 billion is squirrelled away through tax evasion and one thousand of the riches people in this country increased their wealth by £155 billion last year, enough to wipe out the nation’s deficit overnight.
Meanwhile my local foodbank runs a stall in a market on a Saturday next to the Anti-Cuts Union stall where they ask the poor of Walthamstow to donate tins and toiletries to the destitute of Walthamstow.

Food banks need to get political

My annoyance at foodbanks is that we are not in debt, there is money to feed everyone, and we, the poor, shouldn’t pay for a crisis we didn’t create. I understand that foodbanks are often set up by well intentioned people who want to help, but I would question whether a foodbank without politics does actually help. Poverty is not like a hurricane or a flood, it’s man made and it can be man solved.
I stood on the Town Hall steps for over a year asking Labour Councillors to set a needs budget and reject cuts but, to a man and woman they all voted for them. I stopped my local MP Stella Creasy (a big proponent of foodbanks) in the street (as I was losing my job) and asked her to make a public statement condemning cuts to libraries and children’s services but she just wouldn’t. Why? Because getting behind the consequence of cuts is far easier than fighting a preemptive battle….. if you are a career politician.

When 3 million public sector workers took industrial action last November for decent pensions to prevent poverty in old age the same MP who stands behind the foodbank stall and campaigns against poverty wouldn’t support them. Strikes me, if your simpering and crushed by poverty then you get patronised and pitied but if you stand with a straight back and lean look and assert yourself through your trade union then you get condemned. I suppose it’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand, the Councillors who voted to sack me all support foodbanks.

The smell of fresh tar

My Liverpool Grandmother would tell me stories of the poverty her family endured in the 30′s, of picking up orange peel by the side of the road to gnaw on to alleviate hunger pains or sniffing the air when fresh tar was laid on the road because it smelt like food. But she also described the humiliation that many mothers had to endure at the hands of “charitable organisations”, how it was common to have to stand in a cold church hall with children clawing at your skirts and put your case to the parish fathers as to why you should have money to survive. Often these “parish fathers” were local businessmen and factory owners who paid poverty wages to their workers and were vicious if the workers went on strike for decent pay and decent working conditions.

Rebellion against charity

The rebellion that took place in the working class after the Second World War was not just a reaction to the horror of war but was a revolution against the humiliation of poor relief and welfare administration built on “charity”.
I suppose if foodbanks get political and mobilised those they feed to get organised, then I could support them. If, like the unemployed movements of the 30s, they not only fed people but stirred them up to fight for revolutionary change, then I would get right behind them.
If I could sum up my opposition to charity without politics I would have to do it with the help of the inimitable Oscar Wilde who said:

“We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. …Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue”

…Long live disobedience!