Fighting cuts in your own library

With more and more cuts in public library services being announced Save our Libraries campaigns are springing up. In this blog I want to look at practical and ethical issues around the question of whether it is right for librarians to actively campaign against cuts to the library services which employs them. I am not looking at librarians fighting directly to protect their own job (which they are entitled to do) but campaigning to protect library services in general. Please note that I am not an expert on employment law - nor on professional ethics for the matter. These are notes for discussion.

The main practical issue is whether your contract of employments restricts your ability to campaign against the policies of your employer. The ethical issues are a) whether it is right for 'professionals' to act against the policies of your employer and b) whether a professional librarian is empowered by the CILIP Code of Ethics to campaign against library cuts.

Most people working for a local authority will have a code of conduct which sets out the minimum standards of behaviour expected of Council employees and which forms part of your contract of employment. Aspects of this code may affect you if you are planning to campaign against any aspect of Council policy. For example:
· Restrictions on using Council property for official council business only.
· Limitations on contacting the media
· Not wearing badges etc to indicate support for a political party or pressure group.

As well as these specific restrictions there will probably be a general statement on the line of "Your duty as an employee and any interest outside your job must not conflict". Does this mean that the code can be used by your employer to prevent you taking part in campaigns against council policy?

The first response is that the code only applies while you are at work and not when you are off duty. However although this may be true of things like wearing badges, the code of conduct as a whole does regulate your private life as well because this is exactly where conflicts of interest can arise. Membership of certain organisations such as the Masons may be regulated by the code on the grounds that it creates a potential conflict of interest. It is hard to draw a clear line and a Council may try to use such a code to restrict campaigning by their staff but this does not mean they would be justified in doing so in all cases. One can argue that as long as your private activities are not harming the interests of the people that the Council serves, then you are entitled to express your own views in your own time. Taking action in work time would be in breach of your contract - although you may still choose to do this as a form of industrial action.

But is it ethical to campaign against your Council's policies? If you were head of library services and you were instructed to reduce your budget then you have a choice of carrying out your instructions or resigning. If you decide to continue you may well propose closing some branches in order to protect the overall quality of the service. In this situation it can be argued that you have a responsibility to your employer not to campaign against these cuts, even when off duty. Does this extend to the other library staff? Is there a general ethical responsibility to support the policy of your employer if you don't agree with it? Most people would regard a generalized loyalty to an employer as rather sinister - we are not corporate clones! But local authorities are democratically accountable bodies and they act in the interest of their communities. Many people choose to work in the public rather than the private sector because they believe in the idea of public services. Shouldn't this involve a sense of loyalty to the Council even if you disagree with a specific policy? The argument here is likely to be that the interests of the Council are not always the same as the interests of the community. Council policy may reflect narrow political interests rather than wider public benefits.

In most cases don't we all expect a certain level of corporate loyalty? If as library managers we introduce a new procedure, such as self-issue or an improvement to social inclusion, and explain the reasons behind it to our staff, we would expect that they would do their best to implement and even promote it to library users. Wouldn't we feel aggrieved if we discovered that one of them was actively undermining the new policy with users and stirring up complaints? The issue here is whether your staff have been fully consulted and given the opportunity to express their views. Corporate loyalty is a valid concept but it depends on a level of involvement that is not always extended to staff.

A final consideration is the CILIP Code of professional conduct. CILIP states that "One of the hallmarks of a profession is the framework of values that underpin the work of practitioners in the sector". To this end it has published a Code of professional practice. Section D (Responsibilities to society) states:

"One of the distinguishing features of professions is that their knowledge and skills are at the service of society at large, and do not simply serve the interests of the immediate customer. Members should therefore: 1. Consider the public good, both in general and as it refers to particular vulnerable groups, as well as the immediate claims arising from their employment and their professional duties…"

Section E (Responsibilities as Employees) states:
"Members who are employed have duties that go beyond the immediate terms of their employment contract. On occasion these may conflict with the immediate demands of their employer but be in the broader interest of the public and possibly the employer themselves."

A footnote to this last paragraph says:
"It is recognised that sometimes Members, acting as a representative of employers, have to make decisions that may impact adversely on levels of service or the employment of staff. This is not in itself unethical behaviour but there might be circumstances in which it could be – the lawfulness of the action or the way it is managed, for instance".

Both of these extracts suggest that there is a professional duty on librarians to act in the interests of society at large even if this conflicts with the interests of their employers. You could argue that your duty to your profession balances or even overrides your duty to your employer.

You must not expect your employer to accept the validity of this argument. If your employer insisted on Chartered status for its professional library staff you might argue that the CILIP code of practice was an implied part of your contract - but this is seldom the case today. In principle this code applies to all librarians and not just members of CILIP but I can't imagine any employer taking any reference to the code seriously if you were not a member and in any case they would argue that it is not binding as they have not signed up to it. However if you were seeking to justify your actions in campaigning against library cuts on ethical grounds then this code could form part of your case. Just because the local councils is your employer does not remove your professional responsibility to act in the interests of your users and society in general. If library cuts are against the public interest than as a librarian your duty is to campaign against them.

Ultimately you have to make up your own mind about campaigning against library cuts and accept the consequences of your decision. Using the staff photocopier to print "Save our Library" posters may be a short-cut to disciplinary action but if you feel you are right to speak out don't let anyone bully you into keeping quiet.