Library Workers’ Union Calls Out Precarious Work, Austerity Budgets
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How Much Are Toronto’s Librarians Worth?

Union president Maureen O'Reilly says the time has come for the city to treat its library workers properly.

The Toronto Public Library is, as union president Maureen O’Reilly will be the first to tell you, the most-used urban library system in North America. It receives more than 19 million visitors each year and, according to a study on its economic impact [PDF], brings in $5.63 in revenue for every $1 spent. Despite that, the Toronto Public Library Workers’ Union (TPLW), Local 4948, has been in constant campaign mode since its split from CUPE Local 416 in 2009.

The TPLW, which represents the city’s 2,200 library workers, hit the high point of the union’s ongoing fight in the 2011 showdown with the Ford administration—the governing body intent on shuttering one third of the city’s library branches as part of a raft of severe budget-balancing cuts. The public supported the library during that battle, and a council vote narrowly defeated the motion. The next year, TPLW held out against most demands for concessions to the collective agreement, though not without an 11-day strike. (Library workers bargain with the library board, which is ostensibly a separate entity from the city administration but on which several city councillors sit.)

Those concessions ran the gamut from benefits to work-hour flexibility, wages, and job security. In the end, TPLW agreed to a meagre raise and a rollback on job security that would allow anyone with less than 11 years on the job full-time (or 22 years part-time) to be laid off. While some groups—most notably the police, but also firefighters and city council itself—see generous raises during nearly every round of contract negotiation or arbitration, other city workers, like the library staff, have faced below-inflation raises for several years.

“The police alone are just over $1 billion a year, and we have steadily seen the budget in the library decrease, the staffing decrease,” O’Reilly said. “And yet the productivity levels in the library are huge. … Shouldn’t you be investing in this service that people use so much, instead of doing the exact opposite?”

Spokespeople for the city and the library board declined to comment for this story. A library HR department spokesperson said the library is working toward a contract that will be beneficial to the library, its workers, and city residents, and that they are confident this will be achieved.

One major concern for library workers was and remains the presence of conditions that have recently gained wider awareness under the term “precarity”: low wages, difficulty accessing benefits, shifting work hours, and impermanent employment. TPLW put together two videos on the subject, one of which tackles the larger concepts, while the other shows how precarious work affects the city’s librarians.

In the video above, library staff explain how the conditions of their jobs affect their well-being. “I don’t even know if I’ll have a roof over my head with the current wages that I make,” one woman says after explaining she’s constantly exhausted from working split shifts.

While noting that library workers have faced declining stability since before the Tory and Ford administrations and that neither is totally to blame for the changes, O’Reilly said there’s a conversation taking place right now about working conditions that is allowing the library to highlight its workers’ plight. Library jobs have long been seen as home to either secure, long-term career staff or students with after-school jobs, but in fact, according to O’Reilly, adults are filling more and more of the part-time spaces once occupied by students. And the workplace is majority part-time. People can work for the library system for years, often after earning more than one university degree, in hopes of achieving full-time employment. And as of 2012’s collective agreement, they can be laid off at any time until they’ve worked full-time with the library for more than a decade.

While precarious labour has been endemic in industries like retail and commerce for years, if not decades, (and, as O’Reilly was quick to point out, precarious work there is no less damaging to the people doing it) the phenomenon is rapidly swallowing up what were formerly stable careers. A 2013 study by United Way on labour in southern Ontario found that “a significant number of those who describe themselves as being in permanent employment still have many of the employment characteristics of those in precarious employment.”

That same study explains that precarious employment contributes to anxiety, deteriorates “community connections,” and makes it more difficult to have and raise children. In short, insecure employment takes a significant toll on both the individuals affected and the communities in which they live.

TPLW has been in contract negotiations since Feb. 9; the union’s contract expired on Dec. 31, 2015. O’Reilly says the library board and city appear to want more dramatic cuts which would further undermine the security of library workers’ livelihoods.