An Ontario town north of Toronto is turning to the province’s labour relations board to end a weeks-long strike by library workers fighting for a wage increased of $1.35 per hour that the mayor says residents can’t afford.
The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury in Simcoe County is heading to the Ontario Labour Relations Board amid a strike by library workers that’s gone on more than 50 days.
The town and CUPE, the union representing the workers since they chose to unionize in 2021, met for months before the strike began in July, which the union says makes it the second longest library workers’ strike in Ontario’s history.
The town’s most recent offer was rejected by the union and the town is now asking the labour board if it will provide an arbitrator — a move the union and approximately a dozen workers who spoke to CBC News, say they strongly oppose.
Andrea Vander Kooij, a programming librarian in the town for eight years, says workers, have felt disrespected at every step of the journey to try and reach their first collective agreement.
“The fact that they’ve chosen to try to force us into arbitration is so disrespectful because workers we have the right to protest. We have the right to remove our labour,” she said.
Whether the labour board will accept the town’s application remains to be seen. A decision is anticipated by next month.
This will be the first collective agreement for these workers, who made the decision to unionize recently. If an arbitrator is granted, it would mean the workers would not have the chance to vote on their first collective agreement, which determines all of their wages and working conditions, at all.
Vander Kooij says workers sought out CUPE to help them improve their wages and working conditions and want the chance to have their say.
Like many of her colleagues, she told CBC she works part-time at the library and has a second job to make ends meet, but would rather work full-time at the library doing what she loves.
“Most people are cobbling it together,” she said, adding most are not receiving benefits.
Vander Kooij says she knows the people of the town are behind the workers, but doesn’t believe the mayor and council understand the value the library provides to people of all ages, including being a link between those in need and social services, in addition to literacy programs.
She says she has seen postings in other communities for library jobs paying higher wages but says she doesn’t want to move.
“This is my community. This is where I live. I want to make this a better community.”
Sides clash over views of living wage
Katherine Grzejszczak, the president of CUPE 905, says the library workers, almost all of them women, feel their work is being undervalued compared to the work of other town employees in male-dominated professions. She noted entry-level general labourers who work for the town are getting more than $26 an hour.
One library worker picketing, Slavka Nogrady, told CBC she makes less than $17 an hour.
Mayor James Leduc says different positions within the town are simply paid different amounts. “This is not a male-female gendered issue…we’re a very equal opportunity employer.”
Grzejszczak said, “I don’t buy for a second that if this was a male-dominated profession, that they would be out on strike, trying to get $1.35 wage increase in two years of a collective agreement. Half of these workers are making less than $23.15 an hour, which is the GTA living wage.”
Leduc says the town listened to concerns raised by the union about living wages. He says the town took them into account in the latest offer by elevating the wages offered to some lower paid workers to what it considers the living wage.
The union disagrees on living wage benchmarks being used by the town. Sitting near the border of two regions outlined in the Ontario Living Wage Network’s map, the town is using the 2022 figure for Grey Bruce Perth Huron Simcoe of $20.70. The union believes it should be paying at least the GTA wage of $23.15 and should also take into account the agreement extends far beyond 2022.
Grzejszczak said the town’s latest offer would have only brought three of 36 workers to the hourly increase of $1.35 the union is seeking and left student workers all below the living wage.
Leduc maintains that meeting the $1.35 ask across the board would have cost more than what people can afford right now. “I’ve got to respect the taxpayer. And that’s a 2 per cent increase right off the bat,” he said.
He says the town needs to be fair to everyone and believes the offer the union rejected was fair.
Arbitration request ‘rare’
Stephanie Ross, a labour professor at McMaster University says the town’s approach is unusual.
“It is extremely rare for an employer to apply for first contract arbitration,” she said. First contract arbitration is usually something that a union applies to, not the employer, she said.
“The town wants an arbitrator to settle the conflict rather than settle it at the bargaining table and I don’t think that’s good for labour relations long-term,” said Ross.
It could still be weeks before the labour board decides if it will grant an arbitrator, a decision Ross said will depend on whether the town can prove the union wasn’t bargaining in good faith. That may be difficult to do considering the union lowered its wage increase ask down to $1.35 an hour during the negotiations, she said.
The two sides will meet again with a mediator before the labour board decision about granting an arbitrator is expected. The mayor says the ideal is to settle before that stage and is urging CUPE to come back to the table.
“It won’t go to the arbitration stage if the employer finds $1.35 for the last two years of the collective agreement,” Grzejszczak said. “We could have this strike settled tomorrow.”
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