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An open forum for staff representatives

The National Association of Works Councils and Co-management Committees in Public

Theo de Ruiter
Lieuwe de Vries

The National Association of Works Councils and Co-management Committees in Public Libraries was established in May 1983. This article describes how and why it developed, what it has concerned itself with up to now, and what the aims and methods of work are. An attempt is also made to formulate a few ideas as to the future of the Association.

Background to the Association

Works councils or co-management committees were set up from 1979 onwards in most large libraries. The early days of most works councils were characterized by a number of infantile disorders such as:

- the drawing up of rules and regulations;

- learning to deal with the Law on works councils;

- the establishment of mechanisms for consultation with the rank and file;

- obtaining (fighting for) facilities within the undertaking to enable the works councils to operate properly;

- learning to deal with managements that, until independent works councils were set up, were not used to dealing with consultative bodies of this kind.

In most cases, these difficulties have since been overcome.

In its third year of existence, the works council of the PBC-Noord (North Holland provincial interlibrary lending centre) reached a number of important conclusions during the annual training course:

(1) As a works council, you will be confronted by your management with a number of policy proposals on which your advice or agreement is requested. These matters are often very complicated and concerned not with your profession alone but with the library as a whole, e.g., automation or arrangements in the field of social policy within the establishment. Works council members often lack expertise in such fields.

(2) As an individual works council you are confronted by national developments such as the Enabling Law on Individual Welfare (then still in force!) and cuts - developments affecting not only the staff in your own organization but which, because they were initiated by the authorities, will undoubtedly affect libraries throughout the country. Of course there are differences as between different local authorities and different provinces, but the majority of staff come under a single collective agreement, a single library law, a single system of subsidies. All managements and works councils are bound by the rules of one and the same collective agreement. In this type of national question, as an individual works council, you can do no more than take up parts of the problem and consider ad hoc solutions.

(3) Works councils operate within undertakings and rarely, if ever, outside them. There is no single consultation mechanism for works councils in public libraries in which common problems can be discussed, but such mechanisms do exist for managements - Werkgeversvereniging Openbare Bibliotheken (WOB) (Employers' Association for Public Libraries), Regionale Steun Bibliotheek (RSB) (Regional Support Library), Direktie-Overleg Stedelijke Bibliotheken (DOS) (Consultative Body for Municipal Libraries), etc. - and e.g. for personnel officers, who can exchange ideas with one another, improve their skills, and take up positions within the Nederlands Bibliotheek en Lektuur Centrum (NBLC) (Dutch Centre for Public Libraries and Literature).

The only thing that works councils can do, through a trade union member, is to consult a trade union on certain problems and questions relating to labour legislation. Nothing else is possible.

Establishment of the Association

On the basis of the foregoing, the works council of the PBC-Noord Holland reached the final conclusion that it was necessary to establish some type of consultation mechanism for works councils and co-management committees in public libraries so as to try and provide common answers to a number of questions. An attempt to set up such a mechanism was made some years ago but never got beyond a single meeting.

This time the works council of the PBC-Noord Holland first put forward its idea to a few other works councils in the province, which were immediately enthusiastic about it. At the beginning of 1983, therefore, a circular was sent out by the works councils of the PBC-Noord Holland and the Amsterdam Public Library to all the works councils and co-management committees in the country.

This appeal (published, inter alia, in Infobulletin) aroused a great deal of interest and was therefore not an unnecessary luxury. The result was an initial meeting on 2-4 May 1983 in the Oisterwijk People's College, attended by 18 works councils and co-management committees. It became clear at this meeting that a great need existed for regular national consultations among works councils, independently of trade unions and the NBLC. It was therefore decided to establish a National Association of Works Councils and Co-management Committees in Public Libraries, with the following aims:

(1) to exchange information and experience;
(2) to provide mutual support;
(3) to provide training and collect information;
(4) to develop common ideas, standpoints and initiatives.

Since this first meeting, two further meetings have been held (the fourth is scheduled for May 1984), and 30 works councils and co-management committees have joined so far.

Achieving the Association's aims

How can we support one another?

If we take the cuts as an example, we can easily see how works councils can help one another. One the basis of an inventory of bottlenecks encountered by a works council (co-management committee), a list of questions, ambiguities, uncertainties, etc., can be drawn up, which vary widely in both nature and scope, and which arise everywhere in the work of the council and are linked directly with the way you, as a works council, can and must concern yourself in the best and most appropriate way with the demands of the staff. This is after all the one thing that you have in common. After such a list has been drawn up, the role that the Association can play in looking for answers and solutions to the problems reported is then clear. This is how we worked at the last study day of the Association at the beginning of October. A small group from the Association first drew up a comprehensive inventory of the precise situation of each works council or co-management committee with regard to plans for cuts and reorganization. From this inventory, the following subjects emerged as the most important:

(1) There is a great lack of clarity as to the application and interpretation of the article in the collective agreement governing the procedure for redundancies (Article 28).

(2) How should plans for cuts and reorganization be co-ordinated with one another in terms of content; how and when must you, as a works council, intervene; how can you, as a works council, assess them?

We then decided that we would have to refer the first question to the trade union, and the second one therefore became the subject of the study day. On the basis of the inventory, a number of key questions in this field had emerged, which we first tried to answer in smaller groups, in which a wide variety of experience was presented. From these discussions and experiences, a number of agreed joint conclusions were reached as to the way in which you, as a works council, should be able to take a stand against management plans, which criteria you can apply in assessing those plans, how you can react to secrecy., and how you can involve your rank and file in this.

A study day of this type can be an important back-up for an individual works council or co-management committee in assessing management plans or in taking up its own positions. Mutual support is anyway not provided solely in the official part of a meeting. The informal part ('the lobby') is also of great importance in this connection. Mutual support within the Association has been rapidly put into practice and been seen to be useful, not least because of the problem of the cuts, as also shown by the fact that there are already plans and agreements to keep one another better informed and, within the Association, to hold a separate meeting of works councils of PBCs on the complicated problems of PBCs with regard to the cuts.

How can we obtain information from one another and learn from each other's experience?

Works councils appear to have all kinds of experience with regard to various matters coming within the competence of works councils and co-management committees in public libraries. We are thinking in this connection of matters such as the structure of the organization, automation, part-time work, social policy, government policy documents, contacts between works councils and management, contacts between works councils and the rank and file, works consultations, etc. A number of these matters will be suitable for future Association study days, but works councils are often faced by concrete questions that have to be answered quickly. A works council information bank would be a possible solution here, in which know-how in the form of reports and the like would be collected and be directly available to works councils throughout the country. Such a solution, however, will not be easy to achieve as long as facilities (e.g. official support) are not available in public libraries for such an activity on the part of the Association. However, a beginning has been made in meeting this need by drawing up a list of problems with which works councils have been deeply involved. This means that one works council can consult another one on the telephone (or in some other way) as to its experience or the arrangements made. By systematically keeping the list and the problems up to date, subjects/matters will emerge in the future that call for a common approach. How and when can we formulate common points of view and put them forward?

In certain cases, the Association can also put forward common points of view. Thus the cuts provided an occasion for the immediate formulation of a common point of view and for putting it forward. This was done by means of a letter to the Committee for Welfare and Culture of the Second Chamber and in the speech made by Judith Kortland at the initial meeting of the NBLC action at Amersfoort. In both cases, acting together as works councils and co-management committees, we emphasized the personnel aspects of the cuts problem and drew them to the attention of politicians, the press and all those connected with libraries. As we did so by stressing that, apart from the particularly serious consequences for users and for the quality of the services provided, the personnel were faced by a whole range of problems affecting them alone. We made it possible for everyone to hear and read about this.

So much for the aims and methods of work of the Association.

The Association is independent of other organizations, such as the NBLC and the trade unions

The relationship of the Association to the trade unions in question, the Union of Public Employees AbvaKabo, and to the NBLC was exhaustively discussed at the meeting at which the Association was established. It was finally decided to set up an independent association of works councils and co-management committees, for the reasons discussed below.

What is the attitude of the Association towards trade unions?

First of all, it is in no way the intention of the Association to take the place of the trade union. On the contrary, the Association, wherever possible, will co-operate with the trade union, and this was communicated to it, by letter, after the meeting at which the Association was set up.

Why, then, is the Association nevertheless independent? Trade unions are primarily concerned with working conditions, wages and negotiations about collective agreements (as became clear at the time of the numerous industrial actions, strikes, etc., in November). All matters in this field will be referred by the Association to the trade union.

But, as already pointed out in this article (with reference to the problems of the cuts) the problems confronting works councils are not concerned solely with matters of pure labour legislation and problems of collective agreements. As a works council, you have to deal with the policy of the undertaking, in which choices are made and priorities assigned. Take, for example, a subject such as automation.

The majority of works councils will not reject automation on principle, but will hardly be satisfied in the only condition made is that there should be no redundancies (this is the condition laid down by AbvaKabo in its policy plan). For, once you have said yes, a whole range of other changes will be introduced (even if there are no redundancies) in which people will be involved who see their tasks and functions, in a word, their work, being fundamentally changed.

What is your attitude, as a works council, towards automation and in the negotiations about automation with the management (e.g. what conditions you make, what guarantees you demand, how you follow up the implementation) is an obvious example of a matter that is not solely a question of working conditions and negotiations about collective agreements, and will undoubtedly be considered as one to be given further consideration by the Association.

A second reason for wanting the Association to function independently is the regrettably low level of union membership among library staff. Practically every works council or co-management committee will be aware that a number of staff do not belong to a union. The trade union - correctly - refuses to talk to and consult non-members, while the Association can consult all works councils and co-management committees, knowing that it represents all the staff, both union members and non-members.

Independent status for the Association then, but as much co-operation as possible. It is thus particularly gratifying that, in recent months, within the trade union, there have been a number of meaningful conversations with trade union members of works councils on the implementation and interpretation of the collection agreement (inter alia, in the depressing light of the cuts).

What is the relationship between the Association and the NBLC?

In the discussion on the relationship with the NBLC (as a union), the conclusion was rapidly reached that the NBLC's status is more that of an association of employers. The informal groups and the close links with the WOB (the official employers' organization) are examples of this. In addition, within the NBLC, there are various kinds of consultative mechanism (e.g. working groups) having quality control and improvement as their aim. There is no such consultative link or anything like it in the field of works council activities. (You may wonder whether this was considered to be undesirably or was simply overlooked).

Method of work of the Association

Thus the Association has independent status at present but will, where possible, gladly co-operate both with trade unions and/or the NBLC. The Association will meet, in principle, two to three times a year, the meetings lasting one to three days. The meetings will be prepared, secretarial duties, etc., undertaken by a group of volunteers under the aegis of their own works council. The secretariat is located at the works council of the Amsterdam Public Library. For the meetings, use will often be made of the Oisterwijk People's College, where support will also be provided in the person of Clemens Gilberts.

The future of the Association

The Association has quickly demonstrated its usefulness, as shown by the large number of works councils and co-management committees that have joined up to the present and taken part in the meetings. This rapid growth is unfortunately probably due not I-east to the problem of the cuts, but at the same time experience shows that you, as works councils and co-management committees, can teach and support one another a great deal in other matters as well.

The Association also represents a welcome combination of forces which, at national level, can constitute a power base to serve as a counterbalance to an already old established national management mechanism. The opposing demands of management and staff within a particular undertaking thus take on a national character, provided that the staff's demands are expressed through the intermediary of the works council. Through the Association, works councils and co-management committees can adopt common standpoints, put them forward, and oppose managements at the national level. The importance of the Association may be obvious but its continued existence and functioning will depend in the future above all on whether every participating works council finds that the subjects which are dealt with and which we are ready to study and discuss together fully reflect its concerns. This condition is of decisive importance in view of the fact that many works councils are already very short of time and will therefore have very little time and energy left to devote to anything that is not absolutely essential - and rightly so. Thus the Association will have repeatedly to demonstrate its value to every member co-management committee and works council. The Association is the instrument of and for works councils and co-management committees, supported by works councils and co-management committees. The first steps have been taken.