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A Perfect Day for a Picket Line

The Toronto Public Library Workers' Union, now on strike, rallies outside City Hall.

It couldn’t have been part of their strategy, but CUPE Local 4948, the union that represents Toronto Public Library (TPL)’s 2,300 workers, picked a great day to stage the first rally of the first strike in their history as an organization. The union—which formed in 2009 when members voted to separate from the city’s outdoor workers’ union, CUPE Local 416—was fortunate enough to have negotiations with the TPL board break down on the eve of an uncharacteristically balmy March morning. Call it beginner’s luck.

As a few hundred union members marched and chanted in Nathan Phillips Square, some turned their eyes from the sun to reflect on troubles ahead.

“I definitely think the union has the back of the part-timers,” said Melissa Kitazaki, who works in customer service at TPL. “I think it’s ridiculous that in August I will have been at Toronto Public Library for 10 years, and I still can’t get a full-time job. That’s how few full-time jobs there actually are in the system.”

Kitazaki is the personification of one of the most contentious issues in the union’s negotiations with the TPL board. The union thinks TPL has too many part-time workers, and that those workers don’t have the same opportunities for advancement they may have had in better-funded days.

Maureen O’Reilly, the president of Local 4948, summarized her concerns for reporters when she arrived at Nathan Phillips Square around noon.

“We just want really, quite frankly, a decent living standard for our part-time workers,” she said. She added that since TPL shed the equivalent of 107 full-time positions last budget season (many of them belonging to workers made redundant by the rollout of new automated checkout systems), there are now more part-timers than full-timers working at Toronto’s libraries. A TPL spokesperson said that excluding part-time pages, many of whom are students, the current split is 30 per cent part-timers to 70 per cent full-timers.

The union also sees the board coming after job security, which was an issue in the City’s negotiations with CUPE Local 416 earlier this year.

“Quite frankly,” O’Reilly added (it’s an expression she employs frequently, and, to be fair, she is often quite frank), “they’re looking to open up the job security to lay off 1,300 library workers.”

She later clarified that 1,300 is the number of positions she believes TPL’s negotiators are trying to make vulnerable to layoffs—not necessarily the number of employees that would be lost.

But she fears that that regardless of the mathematics of the situation, the TPL board’s real objective in negotiations is to give the City the flexibility it would need to close library branches in future years.

“They weren’t able to close library branches in 2012,” she said. “They’re going to close them in 2013. And the way to do that is to open up our contracts so library workers can be laid off.”

There are a number of forces, both financial and technological, that have brought TPL and its workers to this impasse, but it was clear whom the most vocal members of the crowd in front of City Hall blamed for the mess. After some morale-boosting speeches from labour leaders—including O’Reilly and John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council—a few voices could be heard crying: “Rob Ford sucks.”


  • A Free Citizen of Toronto

    A free society needs citizens who are informed and educated. That is why a free society needs libraries. Many of them.

    We pool our money as taxes to create libraries and by doing so we support our free society.

    Without free and easy access to information and the ability to educate ourselves throughout our lives we become, whether we like it or not – ignorant and blind followers.

    The ignorant and the blind do not create free societies.

    Ask yourself why Ford and people who support him want to make followers. I think the answer is obvious. They want to lead the blind.

  • Jacob

    I can’t imagine any Ford supporters caring one bit about this. When you’re that proud of your ignorance you never visit libraries.

  • Anonymous

    Can someone explain why strikers always walk round in cricles? Is it symbolic of something?

    • Jenny

      I would imagine that the alternatives would make for a far more confusing mess. At least with circles you’re continuously walking and in tune with everyone.

    • Anonymous

      The alternative would be a parade, which they would need a permit for.

      • Anonymous

        I meant, why can’t they just stand still?

        • Anonymous

          My guess is that it would be boring and participants would tire faster, look less organized, and increase confrontation with angry victims of the strike who wouldn’t have to keep pace with the picket if they wanted to stay in someone’s face.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe people shouldn’t expect to hang on to part time jobs like these forever? Might be nice to let some young people have a chance at it. Keep library costs down and help fight youth unemployment at the same time.

    • guest

      Thats the point; they don’t want to be part-time forever, but there are no opportunities for advancement, even for people who have invested years of their lives and thousands of dollars for university degrees in this field

      • Anonymous

        Well that sounds more like a problem of too many applicants. We don’t owe someone a lifelong career in a library just because they decided to go to school for it.

        If you choose to abdicate your role as a wealth earner in the private sector, you should remember that it’s both a privilege and a sacrifice to serve and be supported by the public, and that that same public may decide at some point that your services are no longer required. You might disagree with them, and you might even be right, but it is a perversion of democracy to shut down that institution in protest.

        • Phil Ashdown

          Work in the public sector is not a privilege, it is a responsibility.

          Having a union is not a privilege, either. It was fought for, debated and passed in parliaments around the Western world, has the force of law and is entirely legitimate.

          As to the perversion of democracy, asserting the dominance of market economics, i.e., buy low, sell high, as the principle by which society is organized means that social life is primarily economic. Why even mention democracy?

        • Jenny

          By your reasoning, we don’t owe young people jobs either. Just because people are young doesn’t mean they’re owed a job in a library.

          I’m not sure how it is a perversion of democracy to exercise your right to protest. As poetic as it may seem to suggest that to be a public service worker is both a privilege and a sacrifice, this is not a one sided relationship. The public must also respect public service workers and the work they do.

          • Anonymous

            We don’t “owe” anyone a job, actually. I was merely suggesting an idea that I think is for the greater good.

            Shutting down a monopolized public service because the people elected someone with a platform you don’t like is not a “right”. The service belongs to the public, not to the unions. It is not “theirs” to shut down.

          • Jenny

            And what will happen to the people who are let go because someone younger comes around? Where is the greater good in that?

            They are also “the people”. Really I’m tired of this whole taxpayer/people vs. public sector workers. Did you know they’re “the people” too? They pay taxes, they vote, and they contribute to the city. This whole war on the public sector is really a form of cannibalism.

            Your convenience and access to a public library doesn’t override people’s right to protest and freedom of expression. If you think that your access to borrow library materials is that important, please feel free to contact your Councillor and urge them to treat librarians like they do to all the other public workers who do not have the right to strike (police officers, firefighters, etc). Be prepared however to pay in exchange for that right.

        • Anonymous

          “If you choose to abdicate your role as a wealth earner in the private sector…”
          So, my default role in life is to earn money for private companies. Thanks for telling me! Previously I thought my role in life was to try and make the world a better place, rather than making money for somone else.

          • Anonymous

            No, your default role is to support yourself. In a society with a social safety net, your role is also to try not to become a burden on society. An even higher goal would be to succeed enough to hire other people.

            No one’s role in life is “to make the world a better place.” That’s a kindergarten-level platitude. The world is most often made better when people find a way to support themselves by providing a desired product or service that people, as individuals, voluntarily pay for.

            If everyone were to go into the world-saving business, who would be left to subsidize it?

          • Anonymous

            Ah, so we should all become buisness owners. Got it. Obviously, those of us who are mere emplyees are clearly not worthy.

            I’ll also stop trying to make the world a better place, expecially in ways that have nothing to do with money.

        • Anonymous

          The self-evident failures of this sort of every-man-for-himself approach to society is exactly what gave rise to unions, labour laws, the minimum wage, and job security in the first place. Let’s not be so eager to backslide into feudalism.