Since late on 31 March, members of the local community in Lambeth, south London, have been in occupation of the historic Carnegie Library in Herne Hill to save it from closure.
Over 80 people, young children, grandparents, families, teenagers, students, and local workers occupied in protest at plans to close the library and turn it into a gym, run by Greenwich Leisure Limited.
The plans for Carnegie run alongside Labour-controlled Lambeth Council's plans to close a number of other libraries in the borough. Waterloo and Upper Norwood libraries are set to close at the end of April, and Minet has already closed. These plans, proposed in the council;s Culture 2020 consultation, have been comprehensively rejected by the community.
The campaign to save Lambeth libraries, Defend the Ten, has already racked up some successes, including a commitment by the council to keep South Tate Lambeth library open, fully operational and fully staffed. This followed a number of large demonstrations, over 15,000 signatories on a petition, and a number of official and unofficial strikes by library workers.
Occupiers have had a huge amount of support from the community and coverage by national press. Food packages have been flooding in, and each day has seen demonstrations, vigils, car and bike cavalcades, in addition to a constant flow of visitors to the occupation.
On Monday 4 April, Lambeth Council presented notice of a court hearing on Friday 8th. They will be making an application for an interim possession order, which if granted would give them the legal right to use bailiffs to forcibly remove those inside, and will make it a criminal offence for the occupiers to remain. The reason given in the application, currently taped to the doors of the occupation, is that if the occupation is allowed to continue, the campaign will grow to an unmanageable level!
The demands of the campaign, to keep all the libraries intended for closure open, are backed by people of vastly different backgrounds and ages. Why? Because libraries are a vital service. Losing them would put education even further out of reach for many. We would be losing some of the only remaining free public spaces, as well as the numerous activities and groups that take place in libraries, leading to many people becoming more isolated.
The occupation of Carnegie has been an inspiration because it has demonstrated that the Lambeth community is prepared to go to great lengths to save its libraries. Elderly women, and mothers with young babies have been amongst those camping for almost a week on hard wooden floors.
A campaign of this kind, combined with the continued mobilisation of council workers planned by Unison's Lambeth branch, has a very good chance of keeping these libraries open.
They are also an opportunity to shape a broader campaign to oppose Tory cuts, and the implementation of austerity by Labour councils.
Taking action to serve our community
A Lambeth Unison member describes the fighting mood of a recent branch meeting.
The room was buzzing as I arrived, with people rifling through papers to look for the latest press reports. I can't believe Lambeth Libraries have made it into the Financial Times! came a shout across the Reference Library.
We know our current industrial action against the council is part of a broad movement for the defence of library services in Lambeth and across the country. We stand with the Friends of Libraries Groups and others who use our libraries. We've had support from Lambeth pensioners, disability campaigns, MPs, educationalists, writers, celebrities, and Mumsnet.
Barnet and Lewisham library workers have visited our picket lines. In fact the broad and passionate campaign Barnet workers have fought, taking industrial action, alongside community action is a great source of inspiration for us. We've had messages of support from library campaigns from Coventry to Australia.
But top of our minds were the brilliant and daring protesters who took matters into their own hands and by occupying Carnegie.
Speaker after speaker talked about how proud they were of their readers. One library assistant, who'd never spoken at a union meeting before, said she'd never been so proud to be a library worker. We took a solidarity photo and all recommitted ourselves to campaign alongside the communities we serve.
The meeting came on to talk about our campaign of industrial action. We've taken three days of official action, following an unofficial staff walkout last year. One of the reps read out a letter from the Council which they claimed closed the dispute. We discussed and debated it, from what a shoddy offer it was, to the abhorrent fact that we were limited to striking over jobs under the anti-union laws when we'd all be prepared to strike to save services.
You hear a lot in the press about trade unionists being selfish, calling our leaders bullyboys and barons; but the fact is it is our desire to fight for more than ourselves and use our collective strength to build a better world that scares the Tory Government the most.
We agreed that we do not think that the offer from the Council resolves our existing trade dispute. We know the closure of some libraries will lead (almost inevitably) to job losses in the future. No slippery statement from the council is going to get past us without assurances over jobs until 2020.
We understand the council have made veiled threats to block further action, and reps explained that ultimately whether a trade dispute is legitimate can only be decided in a court of law and we are confident the council will not win there.
Industrial action is just one of the tools of trade unionists, but it is one we think is incredibly powerful. If the council do not back down, we will take further action; our union branch is balloting its entire membership to come out alongside us. Library workers in a number of other boroughs are looking to strike to save their libraries.
We are a community that is saying enough is enough, and I must say I've never been so proud to be a library worker.