Toronto’s public libraries, one of the early areas of friction in Rob Ford’s drive to cut public spending, are now the scene of the first strike of the mayor’s 15-month-old administration.
The city’s 98 library branches are expected to remain closed Monday while 2,300 employees begin picketing after a marathon round of negotiations during the weekend failed to resolve differences on job security for part-time staff.
The library walkout may not be the only labour disruption the city faces this month. The union that represents inside workers has scheduled a strike vote for Tuesday. City-run swimming pools, recreation centres, daycares and other municipal services could be affected as early as Saturday.
The library strike is the first since the amalgamation of the old Metro Toronto municipalities into a single city.
On his way to a meeting Sunday, the mayor was terse in comments to reporters about either labour development, saying only that he hoped for a settlement.
Mr. Ford was able last month to clinch a deal, that included a rollback on some job-security provisions, from the city’s outside workers. They were not in a position to command much public sympathy so soon after an unpopular 2009 strike that affected garbage pickups and parks maintenance.
The mayor’s bid to cut library costs, however, has already generated some backlash, especially after his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, mistakenly complained that there were more libraries than Tim Hortons in his ward and declared that he wouldn’t recognize Margaret Atwood if she passed him on the street.
Libraries were spared from the harshest cuts in last January’s budget. But talks with library workers, whose collective agreement expired Dec. 31, didn’t go smoothly. Despite four extensions to the bargaining deadlines during the weekend, negotiators failed to reach a deal late Sunday afternoon.
“We’re very disappointed that it’s come to this,” said councillor Paul Ainslie, chair of the Toronto Public Library Board.
Unlike some other municipal services, libraries do not have enough management staff to keep branches open, Mr. Ainslie said. Book drops and the bookmobile will also shut down. Users are asked to hold on to the books they have borrowed until the end of the strike and fines won’t be levied for late returns.
Scheduled events and meetings will be cancelled. Library web services will keep operating, however, so the public can still download eBooks or do online research, said spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins.
Striking employees plan to hold a rally outside City Hall Monday at noon. Half of the union’s 2,300 members are part-time workers and their fate was the main concern of Local 4948 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Local 4948 president Maureen O’Reilly said the talk’s collapsed over the issue of job security for part-time staff.
“More than half of our membership is vulnerable to job losses, making it easier for the city to close branches in the next budget,” she told reporters.
She noted that 107 library positions had already been cut in the 2012 budget.
Mr. Ainslie said there were never talks about privatizing or closing branches.
“We don’t want people losing their jobs and we don’t want to close branches,” added Councillor Sarah Doucette, the mayor's designate on the library board.
Meanwhile, CUPE Local 79, which represents 23,000 inside workers, will hold a strike vote for Tuesday.
The union says it is seeking a strike mandate to protect its members from a range of potential changes to employment terms: cuts to benefit plans, an overhaul of the scheduling system for part-time workers and weakened job security.
The inside workers could be in a legal strike lockout position as early as 12:01 a.m. Saturday.