When it comes to picking a fight, taking on Toronto Public Library’s workers is about as dumb as it gets.
Councillor Paul Ainslie, chair of the city’s Library Board, has decided to drop the gloves with 2,300 mostly female part-time workers who are known for the beloved service they provide at TPL’s 98 branches. Modest, innovative and willing to stretch a public dollar as far as it can go, library workers are everything citizens should hope for in a public service and are now on strike.
When other municipal workers went on strike in 2009 over the elimination of the sick bank provision in their collective agreements, TPL’s union accepted the concession without a work stoppage. The union also gave management more flexibility to assign work (I was on the Library Board at that time).
So when a group of workers who have made such reasonable requests of their employer for so many years stands up to say that the Library Board is making them an unreasonable offer, I find it impossible to dismiss their claim. At issue is the Library Board’s demands to rollback job security provisions, increase the number of part-time workers, and make it more difficult for part-time workers to eventually get full-time work.
Far from the caricature that the mayor has painted of our public servants, these are people who have earned my support through their daily professionalism.
With a recent poll showing that over 60% of Torontonians feel like I do about library workers, Ainslie – who championed library branch closures last year and today told the Sun, “I think there is a big difference between people’s love of libraries and love of library unions” – is living in his Executive Committee bubble. Ainslie’s problem is that his bubble is about to burst. With 60% support for workers and 75% support for libraries, it isn’t just the downtown elite that will be on councillors; it will be Ford’s voters, too.
Last year, when the Ford administration was pushing draconian service cuts on Torontonians many campaigns emerged to defend important city programs. Save Riverdale Farm! Don’t cut TTC service! Keep your hands off community grants! But if awards were to be given for organization, the campaign to save our libraries run by the Toronto Public Library Workers’ Union would take the gold. Using catchy phrases, impassioned pleas and celebrity endorsements, TPLW president Maureen O’Reilly channeled all of that support into a single petition.
A poorly kept secret of political organizing is that petitions are an excellent vehicle to collect contact information for people that support your cause. That’s why an activist might be thrilled to get a petition with “only” a hundred names. But O’Reilly’s petition wasn’t tiny by any measure; it garnered well over 50,000 signatories.
Advantage: library workers.
The only question now is if Ainslie and the Library Board will do the right thing or if city council will be forced to take the matter out of their hands when those 50,000 people — representing the view of the majority of Torontonians — demand their libraries be reopened and a fair deal for library workers.
photo by Wylie Poon
Adam is a former Toronto Library Board member from 2007-2010