Ending an 11-day strike, Toronto public library employees returned to work on Friday, March 30 after members of CUPE Local 4948 voted to accept a new contract.
Workers had walked off the job after contract negotiations with the Library Board broke down. City representatives desired greater “flexibility” in denying job security to permanent library employees, by making it easier to lay off workers in the event of outsourcing or technological changes.
Under the terms of the collective agreement that expired on Dec. 31, no permanent library workers could be laid off even if the city outsourced their jobs. Such job security provisions were the main target of the municipal government during negotiations.
Local 4948 represents 2,300 library workers, the majority of them women, including 440 librarians, 730 part-time pages (often students) who stock shelves, and hundreds of customer service assistants. More than half the workers are employed in part-time positions.
By going on strike, Toronto library workers illustrated that the only way to fight austerity is by challenging the bosses and their government lackeys head-on. Yet we must realize that the final agreement only softens the blow.
All library workers will receive a small wage increase that fails to keep pace with the current rate of inflation. The union managed to protect benefits, but sacrificed job security for younger workers – a major concession on the key issue.
The Toronto Star reported:
Under the new four-year collective agreement, full-time and part-time workers will be protected from layoffs after they earn 11 years of seniority.
The agreement includes a wage freeze this year, a lump-sum payment of 1.5 per cent at the beginning of 2013 (less for part-time workers), and increases of 0.225 per cent in 2013, 1.75 per cent in 2014, and 2.25 per cent in 2015. That is slightly less than the outdoor workers received from Ford.
Under the contract, no full-time jobs will be converted to part-time jobs and a “modest” number of full-time jobs will be created, [union president Maureen] O’Reilly said.
The dominant feeling expressed by union representatives after the final deal was that this was the best deal workers could get. Such sentiments indicate that labour remains on the defensive.
Despite trumpeting its victory over Mayor Rob Ford in the 2012 budget by preventing some of the more unpopular service cuts, Toronto City Council still voted in January to eliminate 107 full-time library service positions and shrink the collections budget. Even with the new agreement, the long-term trajectory of the city’s public library system remains dire.
Once the new layoffs are implemented, library staff will have decreased by 17% since amalgamation even as circulation increased 23%. Dwindling job security, including the proliferation of part-time employment, has developed alongside a heavier workload as budget cuts put greater pressure on remaining workers at the library’s 98 branches.
In its document “The New Threat”, OurPublicLibrary.to, a network sponsored by the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, argued that the offensive on workers is part of an attempt by the Ford administration to hollow out the public library system from within.“Lowering the quality of public services and increasing public dissatisfaction,” it notes, “is a tried and true strategy for privatization.”
Introduction of the profit motive through privatization would inevitably result in the closure of branches, higher user fees, fewer books, and reduced accessibility of information and services. It would also accelerate the process of layoffs and attacks on job security for library workers.
Despite the limited nature of their gains, the library workers’ strike – the first of Rob Ford’s 15-month administration – underscores a growing shift in consciousness. Workers increasingly realize they can trust no one but themselves. Experiences on the picket line are creating a new sense of solidarity and recognition of their own power.
Members of the Toronto Young New Democrats repeatedly intervened at picket lines during the strike to show solidarity with union members. The workers and youth sang traditional labour songs together, including “Which Side Are You On?” and “Solidarity Forever”.
“I was tremendously appreciative of TYND showing up to support us in our efforts to gain a fair deal with the employer,” said Alan Harnum, Senior Applications Specialist in E-Services and picket captain at the Toronto Reference Library, in an e-mail. “One of the biggest morale-boosters while on strike is being supported by those without an apparent direct personal stake in the dispute with the employer.
“Speaking personally,” he wrote, “the strike experience has been an extensive practical lesson for me in the value of solidarity: with my co-workers on the line, with the members of other unions who showed up to support us, with groups like the Toronto Young New Democrats, and with citizens from all walks of life who walked the picket line with us for a time or otherwise offered support.
“If the union ‘won’ the strike, it was because we successfully persuaded people that we were not engaged in protectionism, but [were] conscious participants on one side of a struggle against institutional forces seeking the diminishment and destruction of valued public services.
“I emerged from the strike with a greater sense of connection to many of my fellow workers at Toronto Public Library.”
The workers united will never be defeated is no mere slogan, but the only way forward in the face of a vicious onslaught by the capitalist elite against working people. The NDP must take a firm stance against these attacks. Only a militant labour movement, with solidarity actions to unite workers and youth, can fight austerity and win.