Public Comment

Library RFID Funds and Nuclear Weapons: The Prospective Connection

By Gene Bernardi and Peter Warfield
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 06:27:00 PM

The Berkeley Public Library has formally requested an exemption from the requirements of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act and the Oppressive States Compliance Resolution so it can sign a contract with 3M for maintenance of the library’s radio-frequency identification (RFID) self-checkout system.  

The 3M company reportedly took over sales and servicing of the library’s Checkpoint equipment earlier this year—and 3M reportedly refused to sign standard City of Berkeley forms stating that it does not engage in “work for nuclear weapons” and does not work with states defined by the city as oppressive. 

The Library’s request was heard at the Dec. 1 meeting of the Peace and Justice Commission. Due to the inadequacy of the library’s proposal, the commission tabled the matter until its Jan. 5, 2009 meeting. 

Nine members of the public were present to ask the commission to vote against any waiver, despite short notice and the just-concluded Thanksgiving weekend. Speakers included representatives of Code Pink, SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense), the Library Users Association, and the Social Justice Committee of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians. Several speakers suggested use of bar codes as an alternative to the present RFID system, as they are widely used, inexpensive, and continue to be attached to the library’s materials. 

The library proposes to enter into a three-year contract, with an option for two single-year extensions, with 3M for the purchase of maintenance services and materials pertaining to the existing RFID self check-out system. The library estimates the fiscal year 2009 cost to be $70,000 for “increased equipment failure as a result of aging equipment [only three years old!] as well as ongoing costs of proprietary material…. This expense is projected to increase in future years as equipment nears its life cycle end.” 

The library’s exemption request is presented in a Nov. 10 letter to Peace and Justice Commission Chair, Robert Meola. (Councilmember Worthington reports this letter was not included in the Peace and Justice Commission packet he received.) In this letter it is stated that Checkpoint, the original contractor for the RFID self-checkout system, “partnered with and conferred upon 3M the exclusive worldwide rights as reseller and customer service provider of Checkpoint’s line of library inventory…. [A]s a consequence of this agreement . . . the library is obliged to contract with 3M.” The library then threatens that “should the library be compelled to engage a middleman vendor—for a limited selection of material only—costs would be expected to be substantially higher than a direct purchase through 3M.” By using a middleman, Berkeley’s taxpayers’ money would still end up supporting 3M, a company actually or potentially involved with nuclear weapons-related work and with oppressive states, meaning the Tibet Autonomous Region, Kham, and U-Tsang (Res. No. 59853 N.S.) 

The library and city sent representatives who indicated that Checkpoint had partnered with 3M in early 2008, well before the Checkpoint contract expired this June, 2008. Burning questions are: (1) Did Berkeley citizens end up indirectly supporting the nuclear industry in violation of its citizens mandated Nuclear Free Berkeley Act during the last months of the Checkpoint contract? (2) Why did the library wait for almost six months from the expiration of the contract to request being on the P&J agenda for Dec. 1 following the four-day Thanksgiving weekend? 

There are three criteria that must be considered for a waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act even to be considered. The library’s request did not provide sufficient information to consider these criteria which are: (1) “The intent and purpose of the act;” (2) “The availability of alternative services, goods, and equipment…;” and (3) “Quantifiable additional costs resulting from use of available alternatives.” The request for a waiver of the Oppressive States Compliance Resolution was not addressed by the Peace and Justice Commission or the members of the public who were unaware of the request or perhaps unfamiliar with the resolution. 

The intent and purpose of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act is “to oppose the arms race” and “to minimize city contracts with … the nuclear weapons industry.” (Sec. 12.90.020, Purpose.) The library did not address how signing a contract with 3M would support this criterion. (2) The library did not provide an alternative, stating, “there is not another provider or services in regards to the installed Checkpoint proprietary system.” (3) Since the library did not provide an alternative, it also did not quantify additional costs for use of an alternative. 

SuperBOLD and others maintain there is an alternative that may well cost less than the current deteriorating RFID self-service checkout system, that is, the use of long-standing, reliable, and readily-available bar code technology. It is used by the vast majority of the more than 30,000 libraries in the United States—by contrast, only a few hundred use RFID. Bar code technology allows all of the features of self-service check-out and check-in, and the library could easily re-institute this approach. 

Rather than quantifying the costs of a bar code system, probably because the library could not show quantifiable additional costs for that system, interestingly the library suggested there would be additional costs that would occur through the 3M contract as the Checkpoint System “nears its life cycle end.” 

Did the Board of Library Trustees consider the life expectancy of RFID when they contracted with Checkpoint? Did they anticipate that there would be annual maintenance costs for which Checkpoint would charge $35,000 per year or know that Checkpoint was a proprietary system which could be “conferred” on another company which now asks a start-up price for maintenance of $70,000 for the first year—more than double the previous price—to keep the system alive for the last few years of its “life cycle”? 

If you do not want the City of Berkeley to violate the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act—a citizens’ initiative that citizens approved in 1986 by a massive 68 percent, or two-to-one margin—or do business with morally repugnant regimes, please write to the Peace and Justice Commission. Please also attend the Commission’s Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 meeting at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, at Hearst and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, and ask the commission to deny a waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley and the Oppressive States Compliance Resolution. We also suggest sending a copy of any letters to the City Council care of the city clerk, as the City Council has final say over whether a waiver is granted.  


Gene Bernardi and Peter Warfield are members of SuperBOLD, Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense.