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The University’s plans to reduce the size of the Harvard University Library workforce drew criticism Tuesday from library workers and the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. Library officials informed employees of the University's exploration of a range of both voluntary and involuntary options in a series of town hall meetings last Thursday.
“The announcement that the library workforce ‘will be smaller than it is now’ and that some of these potential reductions will be involuntary, combined with the lack of answers to critical questions was alarming and ill-conceived,” read an email to members of HUCTW, which represents many library employees. “For many, the overall effect was panic-inducing.”
The union plans to address the issue by discussing the potential cuts in greater detail with library leaders and meeting with members to assess their reactions, according to the email.
HUCTW Director Bill Jaeger said that his union is concerned primarily with the lack of information provided by the University about the size and nature of the potential layoffs. The presentation of the plans, he said, was “extraordinarily clumsy” and left many major questions unanswered.
Library employees also expressed confusion over the details of the plan. The uncertainty has led many employees to begin speculating on the size of the cuts, according to Karen L. O’Brien, a library assistant.
“All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired,” read one tweet that circulated on Thursday after the first town hall had begun.
Others suggested that the restructuring would require that all library employees reapply to keep their current positions.
The University strongly refuted this statement but recommended that all employees file an Employee Profile “to state job preferences, to articulate skills, and to provide a resume.”
Although he said that the University is currently only providing “vague” explanations, Jaeger is confident that HUCTW will be able to speak with transition leaders. As a part of the union’s contract, Harvard must consult with HUCTW and seriously consider alternative options before laying off a single member, he said.
But HUCTW’s response was insufficient for some union members who gathered on Tuesday afternoon to take a more aggressive stance against the plan for a smaller workforce.
The meeting, which included representatives from the Student Labor Action Movement and Occupy Harvard, concluded with a plan to picket University forums on library reform beginning Wednesday.
For this small, committed group of activists, preparing for a larger campaign would start with reaching out to other employees. Eventually, workers could resort to large demonstrations or another occupation of the campus, said Geoffrey “Geoff” Carens, an assistant librarian and HUCTW member.
“It’s going to get as big as it needs to be,” Carens said. “This is the seed, and we’re hoping for a mighty tree.”
Library employees who attended Tuesday’s meeting expressed frustration with both the plan to cut the workforce and how the University informed employees. At Thursday’s meeting, library officials were unable to answer many of the audience’s questions and did not provide details about the scale of the staff reductions. That information, employees were told, would come in February.
O’Brien said she believes that the University is purposefully stoking fear among the library employees in hopes that they will hurriedly accept unattractive retirement packages.
Regardless of their thoughts about the University’s intentions, many other employees expressed a fear of the upcoming changes.
“I can’t believe I feel as insecure in my job as I did before we had the union,” said Jeffrey Booth, a library assistant who said he has worked at Harvard for 25 years. “We’re already short-staffed. When my friends and coworkers get laid off, I get physically sick. That’s how it affects you.”
The Harvard Library Board, which is responsible for planning the library’s restructuring, met Tuesday to discuss the plan. If approved, it will be considered by University President Drew G. Faust.
The University did not return repeated requests for comment on this article. Harvard Library Executive Director Helen Shenton did not respond through a spokesperson.
—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at email@example.com.
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