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Mayor blames union for Monday library closings that have angered aldermen

Updated: February 8, 2012 8:07AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Friday he’s as angry as Chicago aldermen are about closing branch libraries all day on Mondays, but that time is running out for organized labor to sign on to the less painful alternative — closing them on Monday and Friday mornings.

Emanuel said he was clear from the beginning that his proposed Monday and Friday cutbacks would have less impact on library patrons but needed union approval.

Absent the union representing library employees agreeing to that, City Hall played hardball — by making the abrupt switch to an all-day closing on Mondays.

The move stunned the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which was still negotiating with the city. It infuriated aldermen, too, who thought they had an agreement with the mayor to limit the cuts to two weekday mornings when branch libraries are less busy.

On Friday, the mayor joined the aldermen as champions of library patrons — turning up the heat on the union.

“I’m as upset as the aldermen are. … I didn’t support this, and I don’t want it. ... I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. That’s why I came up with an alternative idea. But the alternative idea requires a `yes’ from the other side,” Emanuel said.

“I expect labor to be a partner in better managing the time because it’s about the people we serve in communities — not about [the union]. Not about me. … The good news? We’re in discussions. The bad news? Monday’s coming fast.”

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said the “lines of communication have been and remain open” between the city and the union representing library employees.

The goal is to “reach an agreement that will rescind all the layoffs and prevent all the reduced hours,” he said.

Earlier this week, 176 AFSCME members were laid off. The first full day closing would be Monday.

“I don’t understand how a plan to close libraries eight hours a week on two days serves the public any better than a plan to close the libraries eight hours a week on one day,” Lindall said. “Our members and the people of the city want a solution that doesn’t close the libraries at all.”

“We had not reached an agreement. Then, without notice, we learned of their plan to implement the Monday-only closure,” he added. “This is not a time to place blame, but to work together to solve the problem. How do we avoid all the layoffs and all the closures in the library system?”

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, said it was clear from the get-go that Emanuel’s plan needed union approval.

“The compromise we settled on included restoring the full, 48-hour library weeks during the time children were out of school, but eliminating four hours each on Monday and Friday mornings which, we were informed, was the time of least traffic in the libraries,” Austin said in a prepared statement.

“The administration testified that the … compromise would need approval from AFSCME and that they would work on achieving this agreement. We continue to be optimistic that AFSCME is going to agree to the four-hour work days in order to avoid the full-day closures.”

The mayor’s plan to reduce library hours and impose draconian job cuts that would impact library services at all hours fast emerged as the most controversial element of his 2012 budget.

Librarians delivered petitions bearing 4,000 signatures and staged a “read-in” outside his office.

Aldermen decried the decision to reduce corporate fund support for libraries by $10 million — even as the city continues to build new libraries on top of the 59 constructed under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Twenty-eight aldermen signed a budget protest letter to the mayor demanding that the cuts be reversed.

To soften the blow — and pave the way for unanimous approval of his first budget — Emanuel agreed to restore $3.3 million that was cut from the Chicago Public Libraries. Instead of laying off 284 library employees, he fired 184. And though he stood firm on his original plan to close on Monday and Friday mornings, he agreed those library closings would not apply during the 19 weeks when school is out.

But that plan is now in jeopardy, placing Emanuel and organized labor at odds once again.

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