A Perfect Day for a Picket Line
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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.”