‘Instead of providing fair wages, they’re spending yet more library funding on a lengthy legal fight,’ says local president

Bradford Today
Michael Owen
August 29, 2023

News of potential arbitration in Bradford’s ongoing library labour dispute hasn’t dampened striking workers’ spirits.

Library workers and supporters took advantage of the good weather to offer a story-time event for kids and parents alike with crafts, songs, snacks and, of course, stories on the picket line at the Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library on Tuesday Aug. 29.

This was the fifth story-time event held on the picket line, as workers at the library have been on strike since July 21 when negotiations over their first collective agreement came to a head.

On Friday afternoon, library CEO Matthew Corbett released a statement on behalf of the employer — the library — in which he announced the library board had applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) to request first collective agreement arbitration.

On Tuesday, the union released its response with comments from Katherine Grzejszczak, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 905, which is representing the 36 striking library workers.

“The mayor and council will do anything to avoid giving these workers a fair raise. If they truly wanted the library open, they could easily end this strike today. But instead of providing fair wages, they’re spending yet more library funding on a lengthy legal fight,” she stated in the release.

Grzejszczak expects the OLRB could takes as many as 30 business days to make a decision about the employer’s application for arbitration — time and money that she feels could be better spent at the bargaining table to ensure the library is open before school starts.

If the OLRB approves the request, it will appoint a neutral third party, which could be a single arbitrator or could be a board of arbitration, who will review submissions and evidence from the union and the employer about the issues they have not been able to settle during bargaining.

Afterwards, the arbitrator will issue a final and binding decision.

Grzejszczak explained that if the OLRB grants the employer’s request for arbitration, workers could be required to leave the picket and return to work, but was uncertain of the exact date on which that could happen.

The Local 905 president clarified that in most instances of workers striking over a first collective agreement, arbitration is not needed.

“It is to my understanding very uncommon, and in speaking with our lawyers, they could not provide another example of this happening in the public sector … not in terms of CUPE,” she said.

A representative from Ontario’s Ministry of Labour added that 98 per cent of all collective bargaining agreements are reached without strikes or lockouts.

Nina Brown, vice-president of CUPE Local 905, expressed frustration over how little progress had been made since the strike began.

“I’m a library worker myself and … we didn’t think we’d be out here for 40 full days, but we are, and where do we stand? We stand at the same ask that we had 40 days earlier it’s $1.35 for us,” she said in reference to the union’s request for an increase of $1.35 per hour per year for two years for library workers.

That request has become a sticking point in negotiations.

Brown said she has done the math and in order to provide the wage increase, it would increase the operating cost to the library by $42,000 in the first year and another $42,000 in the second year.

“Why are we still out here, screaming for this and begging for this when it all boils down to roughly $42,000 per year?” she asked.

In statements released on the library’s website, Corbett has stated that the union’s request is “unsustainable for the library as it exceeds the library’s budgetary constraints,” and “would cause a 2.6 per cent increase in the library tax rate in year one and a 5.2 per cent increase over two years.”

Follow-up questions sent to Corbett about those budgetary constraints and whether or not the budget could be adjusted or expanded to accommodate the union’s request were not answered.

Brown also echoed concerns previously expressed by library workers that if the strike continues, it could have serious impacts on students, as Bradford District High School is set to begin the school year on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and workers estimate more than 100 of those students use the library each day.

“I’m the mother of a high-schooler and the first week we run to the library because that is where we get our book lists, that is where we have the study rooms, that is where our kids meet each other for the projects that they do. And where are these kids going to go at recess or before and after school?” she said.

In Friday’s release, Corbett explained the employer was seeking arbitration as a means of addressing that need within the community to access the library and its services.

“Our goal has always been to achieve a negotiated collective agreement with CUPE 905. However, this strike has gone on for too long and it is time to take appropriate steps to reopen the library and continue serving our community. Up to this point, negotiations have not resulted in adequate progress, so we are taking the steps necessary to resolve outstanding issues and reopen the community’s library,” Corbett stated in the release.

Brown disagreed with the assertion that arbitration was necessary and instead encouraged the employer to engage in negotiations.

“If we hear each other out and we continue to freely negotiate with one another, then I think that is the fastest way to finding a deal, but for that we need to listen to each other and I don’t feel the library workers in Bradford are being heard,” she said.

Grzejszczak agreed that free collective bargaining was the best approach, adding that CUPE remains ready to return to the table and has already withdrawn many proposals in an effort to reach an agreement.

“We need solutions that address the long-standing issue of respect for workers during record high inflation, not arbitration that would force a deal without meaningful resolution to the problems that exist at the library,” she said.

For the first time since July 21, talks had resumed on Aug. 16, but by the following day, negotiations had once again stalled.

The union returned to bargaining after the employer provided a new offer, but the union said the employer was unwilling to discuss the union’s counter proposal.

Grzejszczak declined to discuss the specifics of that counter proposal, but did reveal some details.

“All I can say about that is, it’s still the $1.35. We thought we were making it into something more palatable, but at the end of three-year contract, it would still be the same wage increase, but it was spread out differently,” she said at an event on Thursday evening.

Tuesday marked Day 40 of the strike, which makes it one of the longest library worker strikes in Ontario history, with only Essex County’s 231-day strike, which ended in February 2017, being longer, according to the union.

While the collective agreement would be overseen by the town’s library board, the funding for the board and approval of board decisions comes from council.

Library board members include Licinio Miguelo, chair; Ward 1 Coun. Cheraldean Duhaney, vice chair; Ward 4 Coun. Joseph Giordano; Ferguson Mobbs; Jen Turner; Diana Sheeler and Dillon McDowell.