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Library workers picket with pizzazz Add to ...

The song Happy Together was not meant to be played on the accordion, nor is it traditionally considered a union protest song, but as striking Vancouver library worker Todd Wong pumped out the tune yesterday for fellow picketers yesterday in Library Square, it was a little bit of both.

"People thank me because they enjoy the music and it creates a wonderful ambience," said the library assistant, who had his picture snapped by fellow strikers and tourists alike.

A 30-year veteran of both the accordion and the Vancouver Public Library, Mr. Wong is just one example of the artistic temperament that has decidedly flavoured the library workers' strike.

Today marks the start of the fifth week of the first strike ever in Vancouver's library union history. The smallest of the Vancouver unions currently on strike, CUPE 391's 800 members have taken a unique approach to walking the picket lines - one that involves very little walking and more knitting, reading, singing, barbecuing, listening to lectures and practising tai chi.

Mr. Wong admits he's been slack with his performance schedule - mostly because he's been busy organizing for poets, choirs and authors to come entertain the striking workers.

"People are more than willing to come and perform for our picketers. They have an appreciative audience that's cultural and literate," Mr. Wong said.

And just like the weekly Friday barbecues and daily tai chi in the mornings led by librarian Tim Firth, the presentations are open to all.

"We do this because we want to continually engage with the community," said Peter DeGroot, CUPE 391's job action co-ordinator.

"We feel compassionate and proud about the work that we do and we can't just stop reaching out and being involved with the community."

Many of the striking library workers have been answering questions on the line that they would usually answer at reference desks, using wireless laptops and cellphones to help confused passersby.

"It's very difficult to take the library out of the library worker," laughed CUPE 391 president Alex Youngberg.

Ms. Youngberg pointed out that librarians and those who work with them are generally of an artistic temperament, something that has become evident during the strike. For example, she said, striking workers have knit more than 80 hats, which are being sold for charity or will be donated to Downtown Eastside residents.

"People who work for the library are a very creative, eclectic bunch," said Mount Pleasant children's librarian D'Arcy Stainton. "We have all these creative people coming up with all of these things. Every day on the picket line is different."

Mr. Stainton and James Gemmill, another library worker, have created a series of black-and-white videos posted on the union's website. While Mr. Gemmill's videos serve as artistic depictions of life on the picket line, Mr. Stainton's videos are humorous send-ups of the city's position on key union issues, set to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and narrated in an old-time newscaster voice.

While the videos serve as a creative outlet and a morale booster for other library workers, they also allow Mr. Stainton to show his support for the issues that are keeping the library workers on strike, such as pay equity.

"I spent five years as a single dad working in a female dominated profession and it's hard when you look around and see other city employees with master's degrees making $20,000 more than you," he said.

Most of Mr. Stainton's cohorts are equally as devoted to achieving pay-equity language in their collective agreement, something Mr. Wong said they've been seeking for 30 years. At a recent union rally, the library workers were by far the rowdiest bunch in the crowd, giving Ms. Youngberg louder support than any other speaker.

"That spirit is still there," Ms. Youngberg said yesterday. "This is their first strike, and I wasn't sure how they would feel about it four weeks in, but if anything, they seem to be more passionate."

 

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