From Florence to Gorizia, libraries go back on strike. What's going on?

In the past few days, two library strikes, one in Florence and one in Gorizia, have brought to everyone's attention the serious difficulties of one of six most important sectors of our culture.

“NOTICE. Due to a strike of the contracted staff of the Library and Archives Service, the regular provision of services and the opening of the Florence libraries will not be guaranteed on Friday, July 1.” It is not often that we read similar notices-which far more frequently characterize other sectors-in reference to cultural services. Yet, in Florence this is already the second time this has happened since the beginning of the year.

“We are not giving up. We are ready for anything. If the situation does not unblock, today’s will be only the first in a series of strikes.” Again, the statement with difficulty would seem to be associated with a library, yet this is what some employees of the Isontina State Library, in Gorizia, declared when they went on strike in front of the institution’s gates on June 20, for the first time in the library’s 200-year history.

Two very different squares occurred in Florence and Gorizia. In Florence, strikes were held to keep their jobs, first and foremost. The outsourced workers, about a hundred of them, fear they will lose them under the new contract, given the cuts that, they write, “will have a negative impact not only on the job security of the contract workers who have been guaranteeing these services for 15 years, but also on the entire citizenry.” The administration has decided to reinternalize the service, having administrative staff do their work, which these same librarians would be forced to train. Also at risk are services, “bibliobuses, Saturday afternoon openings of neighborhood libraries, afternoon openings of the archives, and computer literacy,” that have become ancillary and in the absence of further appropriations are destined to shrink or disappear, they explained. On July 1 they were in Piazza della Signoria, in front of Palazzo Vecchio, to ask the city administration for a listening ear that has been lacking so far, with the unions COBAS, USB, UIL and many associations and committees. The adherence, the librarians explained, was more than 60 percent. Not at all a given for precarious workers. “We will not stop, until we receive the answers we have been waiting for since last fall,” assured Alessio Nencioni of the BiblioArchiPrecari Firenze committee and union delegate. The previous contract, which expired a few days ago, lasted 4 years plus another 4, while the new one should last, in the intentions of the Municipality, 20 months, but provides for fewer services and also fewer hours: with the new schedules, which will come into operation on Monday, in the absence of quick action there are those who will lose 50 percent of their hours and therefore of their wages. For now the strikers have obtained a coveted but unresolved meeting with the administration, held last Monday.

Lo sciopero di Firenze. Foto USB
The Florence strike. USB photo

The situation in Gorizia was different, where the strike was staff employed by the ministry, with permanent contracts. Enrico Acanfora, Unsa Confsal unionist, noted this while talking to the newspapers, “Usually, a general strike is for economic issues. This time, however, it is for a better and efficient functionality of a cultural heritage such as the library.” In Gorizia, the last librarian retired on July 1, “as if cardiology lacked a cardiologist,” the striking employees still explained. And ministerial assurances, which came the day after the strike, speaking of “no risk of closure for the Isontina Library” and of “public procedures and competitions being held” to hire staff did not appease the spirits, since competitions also take more than three years to be completed and the absence of librarians is already a reality.

But the two squares have obvious commonalities, starting with the fact that these are strikes that occurred after decades of no strikes in those same institutions. In particular, the common trait is the centrality of the citizenry, which strongly supported and participated in the protest garrisons. In the Gorizia case, also of local institutions, since the Julian Library, which in addition to being a state library, is also the city’s main library. In the Florentine case, the municipality is the contested party, but unions and city politicians have made the dispute their own. Which is not a given, dealing with cultural services long ignored by the media and political forces.

Also in common is the fact that these are only the tips of an iceberg. Broadening the scope, it is the overall context of libraries-and more broadly of cultural services-that appears to be changing. It was only on June 9 that the CGIL’s Civil Service published a very harsh communiqué regarding the"desert of state public libraries“ and listed a number of particularly critical situations, such as ”the drastic reduction of managers assigned to the sector, the inclusion of prestigious libraries such as the Braidense, Estense, Palatina and the Library of Archaeology and History ofArt to the dependencies of museum circuits that have quite another mission than the tasks of protection conservation and fruition of the library heritage, the spoliations of the historical sites, which have affected the University Library of Pisa, for ten years now dismembered in its patrimony as a result of a real pretextual attempt to evict it from its historical seat; the Library of Archaeology and History of Art, at the center of regulatory interventions that hypothesize its transformation into a Foundation and subject to the abandonment of its historical seat in Piazza Venezia in Rome; the National Library of Naples, for which a move from its seat in the Royal Palace is planned." Many of these situations have found their way into the newspapers in recent months and years. But certainly the fact that it came to strikes and garrisons-to record the one in Naples on June 16-was probably out of the thoughts of the ministerial leadership after the 2015 Colosseum Decree, which transformed museums and libraries into essential public services: paradoxically, that very essential public function makes closures or drastic reductions in hours and services due to staff shortages little justifiable, offering ideological and symbolic support for the protests. Only this week, on Monday, July 4, the confederal unions were in the square in Rome "against the abandonment of the Ministry of Culture," and union assemblies were held in many ministerial institutions throughout Italy, mind, widening the field beyond libraries, another strike (ventilated and then withdrawn, having reached its goal in a few hours) was registered at the Maschio Angioino in Naples.

There is, however, a practical issue that concerns libraries more specifically, namely, the fact that these institutions are objectively in a dramatically difficult situation , even higher than the ministerial average. The number of librarians in service at the Ministry of Culture has now reached below 300; in 2016 it was 779. And if for the State Archives - also in dire straits - at least 160 have been hired and another 270 positions have recently been advertised, unable however to balance retirements, for libraries for now there are only 60 hires in these six years, and new calls still languish. A lack of interest that could find a reversal, however, thanks to the protests. Even if at the moment the employment of other staff, such as the administrative staff of Florence, or the staff of Ales - the investee company of the MiC - in the case of state libraries, does not seem sufficient to stop a crisis in the quality of work and service offered. The squares of these weeks, fortunately, remind us of this with anger and smiles.

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