– By John David Card
The rank-and-file members of the Australian Services Union currently fighting for a drastic improvement in their remuneration and working conditions within the Geelong Regional Library Corporation (GRLC) are making major strides, sources within the struggle have disclosed. More than a year of active campaigning within the union, – focusing on boosting membership, directing active engagement, and increasing members’ awareness of their lacking financial compensation – has swelled into a popular, worker-led, movement which only seems to be picking up more and more momentum with each passing week. The past week has been especially turbulent for the effort – with, at the time of writing, at least one day of strike action already having been undertaken – but, all the same, a number of those involved within the movement were able to take the time to relay their experiences thusfar to Notes From Below.
The union’s campaign centres on remedying what it readily identifies as the three major points of disagreement between the library’s workers and regional management; the gross lack of adequate financial compensation, the lapsing and insufficient standards of occupational support like minimum staffing levels and casual work opportunities, and what Geelong library staff describe as a long-standing culture of unacceptable abuse and bullying levelled against the workers there.
For years now, those working within the GLRC have been immensely – and rightfully – proud of their outstanding record of customer service. The greater Geelong area’s seventeen permanent library facilities and two mobile service centres have been consistently ranked as some of the best in the state and the nation. However, “infantilising” weekly emails from management and the offices of new-hire GRLC boss Vanessa Schernickau praising the boots-on-the-ground librarians of Victoria hardly make up for more than a decade of stalled negotiations, the undercutting of salaried positions across the board, and so-called wage raises for the public sector that don’t even make up for rising yearly inflation.
Following the official expiration of the GRLC’s last enterprise agreement and the ‘incidental’ resignation of disgraced for Geelong Regional Library head Patti Manolis OAM – both since the beginning of the Covid pandemic – the number-one aim of the union drive has been the establishment of a sustainable and respectable degree of financial renumeration of its members. At present, the preeminent ranking of Geelong’s libraries and their staff are darkly mirrored in some of the lowest standardised wages in one of the state’s most-expensive regions – and there is almost-unanimous popular support among the booming union rank-and-file to push hard for a drastic pay across the board increase in the days, weeks, and months to come through industrial action.
Moreover, another inside source has expressed to Notes From Below that Victoria’s largest public municipal library service has been stretching the labour of the paid employees it has retained throughout the challenging two years of the pandemic almost to breaking point. Citing the GRLC management’s years of maximal profit-chasing, library staff point to serious safety and infrastructural concerns that have gone entirely ignored the past few years. Staff are regularly expected to work long shifts and late hours (all while the bosses seek to cut Saturday- and evening penalty rates, natch) into the dark hours of the night before needing to then make their way home through the CBD alone and typically on-foot on account of the GRLC’s woeful lack of interest in providing adequate lighting or car-parking facilities at most of their centres – a concern that the Australian Services Union correctly and readily points out that the roughly eighty-five percent of the librarian workforce in this country who are women largely feel goes especially ignored.
Speaking as to how the fight itself is progressing, the sources contacted by this outlet are unabashedly happy with the progress the union is making so far. Despite the incredibly strong and coordinated effort to cow militant unionism into line the world over the past forty years, the Geelong library strikers report that the conditions they’ve endured the past few years made it fairly simple to get almost the entirety of the GRLC staff on board with, first, collective bargaining – and then, industrial action – once the mechanisms to do so were in place.
In a few busy months, active union participation there more than quadrupled thanks almost entirely to on-the-ground efforts to bring about a radical change of attitude among the once-alienated workers of the Victorian library circuit. The union needed simply to point out that while the actual language of the old, lapsed, enterprise agreement had remained the same the entire duration of the time it had been in effect, the conditions being felt and faced by every single staff member were undisputedly getting worse each quarter. The real opportunity to reposition their situation had lit a fire under the movement – and reportedly “really raised everyone’s expectations for the first time in a long time”, said one library technician joining the strike.
Another active organiser contacted for comment summed up the general disposition of the new, militant, vibe circulating among the GRLC staff as being an exercise in “needing to drag [the bosses] along behind them, kicking and screaming if need-be”, adding how vital it had been to their cause that the move for significant pay increases had been driven by actual library staff and technicians, not mere partied hack administrators of the kind that answer to the likes of CEO Schernickau or her disgraced predecessor.
Fittingly enough, the librarians attribute much of their organisation knowledge – and consequentially, their success – to being well-read in the grand intellectual tradition of organisational labour theory. Many of the individuals Notes From Below spoke to credited their solid understanding of the beliefs espoused in their local areas by community-organising groups such as Geelong Anarchist-Communists as being essential for building what they call a “culture of broader class-struggle analysis” among their members – especially given the white-collar (and traditionally, far-from-militant) nature of the modern librarian profession. Nodding towards the likes of Errico Maletesta’s About A Strike, one self-described anarchist striking against the library’s present working conditions summed up their ongoing success: “everything’s unfolding just like the book says, in fact”.
The final results of the Australian Services Union’s industrial action targeting the GLRC may still not be seen for quite some time – however, the future is looking bright for our comrades in Geelong. The outcome we eventually see taken away from the libraries of Victoria’s ‘gateway city’ may just end up proving to be a portent of the optimistic direction organised labour is heading in this country, if not an outright instructional treatise on how to get it there.
POSTSCRIPT: In an immensely vindicating turn of events, in the days immediately following the writing of this article, the Australian Services Union members taking action against the GRLC have had the majority of their demands acquiesced to. Notes From Below commends and congratulates all of our Geelong-based comrades in their united victory.