The union representing support staff in the University of Manitoba libraries is lamenting the loss of nearly 40 positions resulting from ongoing across the board departmental restructuring efforts.
Laurie Morris, president of the Association of Employees Supporting Education Services (AESES), reported to members in an August newsletter that a total 38 positions were discontinued in May, including the elimination of 30 part-time positions and eight full-time slots. While 10 full-time job openings, with new duties and greater responsibility, have been introduced to replace the lost positions, Morris said the cuts will have a direct and negative impact on services.
“The staffing resources have now been reduced to, essentially, a skeleton crew with library closures and long wait times likely being the end result,” Morris told the Manitoban in an email.
Morris said the elimination of the part-time positions amounts to the complete loss of sessional library staff. She said the adverse impact of the restructuring on membership morale forced the union’s hand to break its general spirit of not raising public objection to changes implemented at the university.
“In this case, the groundswell of concerns raised by our members, and the immensely adverse impact this has caused to general morale, has led us to make our concerns public,” she said.
“Our goal in this is to impart upon the university the need to pause and reflect on the impact of their decisions and to reconsider what is the right balance for change.”
Morris acknowledged library administration held meetings prior to announcing any changes but said not all staff were invited to participate and suggestions that were presented largely went ignored.
“We had a brief meeting shortly before the discontinuances were issued to inform us that they would be taking place,” she said. “However, at the time of our meeting, the decisions had already been made to enact these job cuts and the positions had already been identified.”
Mark Hudson, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA), echoed Morris’ sentiments, expressing “great disappointment” in an open letter and called the action “yet another instance of the administration exercising misguided priorities.”
Hudson noted upper-level library staff, including UMFA librarians and archivists, have already seen their workloads increase in recent years and the further restructuring will only continue that trend.
“While we understand that some of the work done in these positions is becoming outdated due to technology, there remains a great deal of indispensable work that is being done by the members who are losing their jobs: running circulation desks, processing and distributing library materials, directing library patrons on the use of equipment, processing materials purchased for the libraries’ collections, and more,” Hudson states in the letter.
Hudson also noted there have been at least six instances since February when libraries were unable to open their doors due to unforeseen staffing shortages.
“These closures are a blow to the health of the University community.”
According to Morris, University of Manitoba libraries have lost more than 30 full-time positions since 2007, representing a loss of more than 25 per cent.
Since January alone, she said AESES has seen more than 70 positions eliminated university-wide.
According to university librarian Mary-Jo Romaniuk, the 30 low-level, part-time positions – including shelvers and library assistants – amount to about nine full-time slots, based on working hours. She also noted three of the eight full-time positions cut were moved to another unit and one employee retired.
The restructuring is taking place across the university’s library network, which includes 10 libraries on the Fort Garry campus and nine health sciences branches.
Replacing the discontinued positions will be 10 full-time openings that will take on greater responsibilities, including one supervisor.
Romaniuk said the shift will help bring the university’s library services more in-line with the advancing customer service needs of students and faculty.
“We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t trying to be more helpful,” she said.
“This isn’t about cutting costs – because it actually costs more money to have higher-grade people – but we didn’t have the capacity to provide the kind of services that a research library should be providing in this day and age going forward.”
Romaniuk said customer service demands, especially from students, are largely shifting to online and the eliminated positions were out of date.
“They were jobs that were designed 20 years ago when we used to shelve a lot of books and people borrowed a lot of books and the skill sets for that really weren’t today’s skill sets,” she said.
Rather than create more library closures, Romaniuk argued the new staffing model will facilitate longer hours by pushing service requests online – where students can interact remotely with staff for assistance accessing resources, whether they are in a physical branch or studying off-site.
Electronic checkout services will also get a boost, including a downloadable app allowing books to be checked-out with a mobile device.
She added that staffing libraries with fewer full-time employees, rather than several part-time workers on various schedules, will facilitate more consistent service.
Romaniuk also noted security services are in place to ensure staff do not have to work alone and libraries are not left unattended, saying “the big piece is we have security backstopping that, so we should never have to close a library anyway.”
“I have some long-term people that still want to guard books but that’s not what we’re there for, we’re there to enable information,” she said.
“And I think the last thing we need to worry about is guarding books – we need to make sure our students are safe when they’re in the libraries [and] we need to make sure our staff are safe and that we have the right people doing the right things.”
While departments university-wide are facing a third consecutive year of three per cent cuts, Romaniuk noted the libraries are faced with the aggravating factor of a fluctuating Canadian dollar.
She said a one-cent drop in the value of a Canadian dollar compared to US currency results in a $60,000 slip in purchasing power.
As a member of both the Association of Research Libraries and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, the university is locked into multi-year agreements as a means to control costs, including a locked-in inflation rate.
However, the agreements don’t have locked-in exchange rates and as a result, the 2016-17 university budget set aside an additional $1.875 million as a libraries acquisition exchange reserve, in addition to a $250,000 inflation allowance.
She said if university administration did not set those funds aside, library administration would have to make some cuts to purchases outside the locked-in agreements, which would affect some faculties disproportionately.
Overall, libraries are operating within a budget of just more than $25.2 million. While that marks a cut of more than $758,000 from a year ago, Romaniuk reiterated the budget isn’t driving the restructuring.
“You can say it’s budget-based – if you had more money, you would do things, perhaps, differently – but it isn’t really budget-based, it’s really about customer service in the long term.”