All sides assess settlement of library strike

Library staff across Toronto returned to work on March 30 after voting to accept the terms of a new contract, marking the first time in 11 days that the city’s libraries were operational.

Unlike the Canadian Union of Public Employees locals that recently settled collective agreements, the library workers were not negotiating with the city directly, but through the library board.

Every three or four years, the library board and union must craft a new contract for library workers. According to Anne Marie Aikins, community relations manager for the Toronto Public Library, these negotiations started off no different.

“The contract expired at the end of December and we began negotiations with our library union, like we do any other time,” Aikins said. “It proved to be more difficult this year. There were issues at the table around job security.”

In the previous contract, all permanent library workers were exempt from layoffs.

“They wanted their contract to remain the same as it was, which was that if you were in a permanent job you’re protected from layoffs,” Aikins said. “We felt that it wasn’t possible any longer.”

Ward 31/Beaches-East York councillor Janet Davis is a member of the library board and explained the change.

“The library has financial constraints because it’s funded 100 per cent by the City of Toronto,” Davis said. “So without separate sources of funding we had to ensure that the settlement was consistent with the financial resources available to us.”

As far as Maureen O’Reilly, president of CUPE Local 4948, is concerned, that wasn’t good enough — considering the 17 per cent budget cut the library already faces.

“We already felt that we were facing a severe staffing shortage at Toronto public libraries,” O’Reilly said, “and that any loss of library workers was definitely going to result in loss of library service, with the potential again for branch closures.”

Ultimately, there was an agreement with protection from layoffs for employees with 11 years of service or more. That is four years less than Local 416, the outside workers’ union, which settled for 15 years. Both Davis and O’Reilly are happy a settlement was reached, but O’Reilly worries about the next contract.

“We still have concern about the employment security provisions that were opened up in our collective agreement and we will be ever-vigilant in ensuring that those provisions aren’t carried forward in the future,” O’Reilly said.

Regardless of long-term implications, Jean Kowaleski, branch manager at East York’s S. Walter Stewart library branch, sees people flocking back to their libraries.

“There seemed to be, for the people that were coming into my branch, no anger or resentment. People were just very, very happy that the library had reopened,” Kowaleski said. “It was gratifying because it did show how important library service is to the community.”