Toronto library workers fight against austerity as strike looms

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Photo: Parkdale libararians Miranda Huska and Portia Dodds in action

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Update: A new collective agreement for the Toronto City public library workers is in the final steps of ratification. More details here.

Update: The Toronto Public Library Workers' Union/CUPE Local 4948 reached a tentative agreement with the Toronto Public Library Board on Monday.
 

Local president Maureen O'Reilly said members were reviewing the proposed contract and a ratification vote would take place this week.
 

"This has been a difficult round of bargaining, but our bargaining committee has secured a deal which we believe addresses some of our concerns and allows Toronto's library workers to continue to provide great services in the city's 100 branches," she said in a statement. 

 No further details about the proposed agreement have been released.

 

Toronto's Parkdale public library branch is one of the busiest in the city.

Colourful, open-plan and probably a bit noisier than most branches, it's a place that serves many of the city's newest residents, as well as some of its most vulnerable.

Branch head Miranda Huska, a member of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union/CUPE local 4948, has worked there for 13 years -- witnessing how the community has changed and with it the library's services.

On Monday, she will be among the 2,300 library workers facing a lockout/strike deadline following nearly three months of contract negotiations between her union and the Toronto Public Library Board. Job security and funding are key issues at the bargaining table.

At the Parkdale branch -- which had nearly 500,000 people through its doors last year -- Huska reflects on why the library is such an important part of life for local residents.

"There has always been a lot of newcomers in Parkdale," she says.

The branch's after-school homework help program, language classes and computers are almost always busy.

"It is challenging. We have seats for over 100 people -- some days, you see somebody stand up, and somebody sits down before they have left," Huska says. 

"Staff who work [here] have to be able to keep the pace, work with a high-needs community with a lot of demands, and be willing to spend the time to help people get what they want."

It is not something that people come in with training for, Huska says through a smile.

"We're down the street from CAMH [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] so we serve a lot of people with mental health issues.

"People from shelters come in and they may have all their belongings around them…and some of the other people may not feel that's appropriate.

"That's the pressure we're trying to juggle in the library more and more. It is trying to maintain that safe and welcoming environment for everybody in the community…so nobody feels they don't belong here."

Portia Dodds, Parkdale's children's librarian, splits her time between in-house duties and managing the library's relationship with seven local schools in its catchment area. 

"About half of your time is spent on the reference desk -- that's just helping people out looking for books, looking for movies…and helping people print stuff off," she says.

The rest of her time is usually spent planning and carrying out various programs and outreaches with schools. 

Dodds says one of the highlights of her role is working on "Operation Super Sleuth" -- a citywide outreach program targeting grade four students.

"We go into classrooms or we get the kids to come here and we tell them about the library and they have some time to checkout a book," she says.

Each child also receives a "mission card" with a game they can play that helps them learn about the library and its services. It's always great to see those that do come back, Dodds says. 

Meanwhile, back downtown, library workers' union president Maureen O'Reilly is preparing for a full weekend of negotiations.

With half of library staff part-timers, and 75 per cent women, negotiating a collective agreement that takes into account the challenges facing precarious workers is essential for members and the library system, O'Reilly says.

"We are the busiest public library in North America." Research shows workers who face an "uncertain future" experience high levels of stress, which often lead to mental health issues.

The library board has continued to push an "austerity agenda" at the bargaining table, and so far failed to present "anything of substance to address the precarious work issue," she says.

In 2012, library workers went on strike for the first time in 35 years when negotiations broke down under the Rob Ford administration. The city's 98 branches were closed for 11 days. 

Members do not want a repeat of this, O'Reilly says. However the strong strike mandate issued reflects the consensus that protection of part-time, precarious workers in the collective is imperative to a healthy, functioning Toronto Public Library system, she says.

Tomorrow, a special "Teddy Bears Picket" in support of library workers is planned for outside City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square at 11:00 a.m. The union has also set up a dedicated campaign page where members of the public can sign up as supporters.

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo by Teuila Fuatai: Parkdale libararians Miranda Huska and Portia Dodds in action

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