With talk on Monday night that negotiations between union and management might resume, there was some hope of an end to the surprising walkout by library workers. That would be a relief, for it was far from clear what the strike was for.
The leader of Toronto’s striking library workers was painting a scary picture of what would happen if she agreed to city demands for changes to the union contract. “They’re looking to open up our contract at this point in time to let more than half the library workers go,” said Maureen O’Reilly. “The only reason they want to do that is to close libraries. Otherwise there’s no point in creating a strike and such disruption to library service.”
This, she said, is Mayor Rob Ford’s “ulterior motive.” Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour called it a “secret agenda.” If Mr. Ford gets away with it, Ms. O’Reilly told a rally in Nathan Phillips Square on Monday, “libraries are going to be shuttered forever.”
Really? Paul Ainslie, the Scarborough East councillor who chairs the library board, denied it outright. He said the city has never laid off a librarian and has no intention of laying off a librarian. “We have no intention of closing library branches” either, he insisted. The library board, he said, passed a motion last fall rejecting branch closures as a way of trimming the budget. The union, in his opinion, is simply “fear mongering.”
There is certainly more than a little exaggeration in Ms. O’Reilly’s rhetoric. When she said that “they are looking to lay off more than half of our workers,” what she meant is that the city wants to lift an ironclad no-layoff guarantee that protects all permanent library employees, both full- and part-time. Under one city proposal, since softened, about half of library workers would lose that protection.
Would that be the end of the world? Guarantees such as these, rare in the private sector and prized even in the public, put handcuffs on employers and reduce their ability to adapt to shifting conditions. Winning greater labour flexibility has been a major aim of the Ford administration. It achieved that aim with city outside workers, it is working on it in talks with inside workers and it is trying to apply the same principle to library workers. As e-books take off and the role of the library evolves, it only makes sense to bring in labour rules that allow for change.
There is no proof that the city is about to close a host of library branches in the process. Councillor Doug Ford mused about it last summer in the famous “Margaret who?” episode, but there was such a howl of outrage that the idea soon came off the table. When city council trimmed library spending in the cost-cutting 2012 budget, it did so without reducing hours or closing branches. A firm majority of councillors, including many conservatives and Ford loyalists, shrink from taking an unpopular step like closing libraries. The libraries are to reduce staff by 107, but that is being done through buyouts, attrition and other methods, not layoffs.
So it’s a bit much to say that the book-burners are at the gates. There is a distinct whiff of conspiracy theory when Ms. O’Reilly says: “There is an endgame to everything that they’re doing and that endgame is getting rid of library workers and cutting service.”
Still, the city side has to accept a measure of blame here. Neither Mr. Ainslie nor any other city official was able to explain why, if the city doesn’t plan mass layoffs at the libraries, it was so determined to reduce job protection in the library contract.
It is not because the city plans to contract out library work, in the same way it did with garbage collection in part of the city. Mr. Ainslie says privatizing libraries is out of the question. So why is it? To allow the city to bring in more labour-saving technology like swipe-and-borrow units for books?
If the union was being overwrought, the city was being vague. The second helped fuel the first.