Fighting for Our Library Workers with Maureen O’Reilly

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.

By Juliann Garisto

As precarious work in Toronto affects an increasing number of residents, public awareness of the issue has grown substantially. Despite the Toronto Public Library system being the most widely used public service, half of their workforce struggles with an unstable employment situation, and a majority of them are women.

In 2011, the TPL worker’s union launched an impactful campaign which shed light upon the issue of precarious work within their labour force. Around this time, Rob Ford had plans to cut funding to TPL, which would have inevitably led to multiple branch closures. These plans contradicted promises made during the 2010 election to find savings at City Hall without making cuts to public services.

In October, the TPL worker’s union released a video to highlight the challenge of precarious work in the Toronto Public Library system. The video includes interviews with library workers, union members, Councillor Joe Cressy, and labour economist Dr. Wayne Lewchuck.

We spoke to union president Maureen O’Reilly about precarious work at TPL, Toronto’s love of reading, and how libraries serve as a safe setting for Toronto’s diverse residents.

Q: What inspired you and the TPL worker’s union to create the video campaign?

A: We have been trying to address the issue of precarious working conditions in our workplace since 2002. In 2011 we launched a campaign fighting back against the Ford Administration cutbacks and were successful.  That campaign provided information about staff cuts as well.  In 2012, we went out on strike. Few understood what that strike was about.  We went on strike to prevent further encroachment of precarious working conditions onto our part-timers. What little we had gained for them over the years would have been lost. We have steadily built our supporter database of regular Torontonians. It was time now to speak more directly about the staffing issues in TPL. They are a key part of the service delivery which we have been talking about all along.  There has been a lot of talk recently in the media about precarious work.  CUPE National just recently undertook a membership survey that showed library workers were the largest occupational group in CUPE that was precarious.  So the timing was right.  The public had a better understanding of what precarious work is about.  We needed to educate them that library workers are precarious workers too.

Q: Why do you think TPL is one of the most used library systems in the world?

A: Torontonians love books and reading. They have contributed to TPL’s success.  I read a few years back that next to the Danes, Canada was the largest reading community in the world.  Through events like the author’s festival down at Harbourfront, Toronto prides itself in being a reading city. It is a large system and very accessible to all Torontonians.  We have 100 branches which means we are situated in 100 communities across Toronto.  All loved by Toronto.  During the 2011 campaign, we ran a contest called “why my library matters to me”.  The library was for many people their first introduction to life in Canada. Libraries are truly community hubs.  Perhaps because we have such a diverse culture here in Toronto, and the public library is seen as a great treasure for so many new Canadians, they take advantage of it all the time.  It is the last public institution to be so accessible.  We open our doors to everyone and we make everyone feel welcome.

Q: I know you played a large role in ensuring that the TPL survived funding cuts under Rob Ford. What contributed to the success of this particular campaign and what tactics did you use to mobilize the community in fighting against his plans to shut down TPL?

A: The success of the campaign was that it was very grassroots.  It affected people on a very personal basis; i.e. their library was under threat of closing.  We created a database of our supporters.  The database sorted the supporters by postal code. We had a series of “action alters.” So we emailed folks from time to time and asked them to send a letter to their councillor on a specific event.  The software automatically generated an email to the local councillor, the mayor, and the chair of the library board.  We also had a contest which proved to be very popular.  We allied with the Writers Union of Canada and some of the cities well known authors including Margaret Atwood.  We allied with other community groups like Social Planning Toronto.

The emails sent out by the network have proven to be very effective. I am constantly amazed when I meet Torontonians at places like Word on the Street where we get a booth every year, that they feel they know me and are very connected to the campaign.  People constantly tell me “oh I get your emails”.  So it’s been a very personal experience all around.

Q: How many people work full time at the TPL, out of all the employees?

A: We have 2,200 members. Half of which are part-time so about 1,100.  There are about 150 managers and exempt staff.  There are no part-timers at that level.

Q: Why is it so hard for people to get full time work? Are there not enough shifts to go around? (Is it a financial issue? Government related?)

A: People cannot find work because there are so few opportunities. The libraries were preparing for amalgamation in the 1990s and therefore shed a lot of staff.  Since 1992, we have experienced a 25% cut in staff, 17% since amalgamation [came] along.  Technologies have also been introduced to the library and staff positions have been lost to that.  For instance, TPL introduced self serve check out.  Their goal is to have 90% of all items checked out by the self serve service so cuts to staff have been implemented. We believe the library is understaffed.

The library does not have a staffing plan. Therefore cuts are made year after year without a true understanding of what the impact of those staff cuts are. There are fewer and fewer opportunities. Yet the library is busier than ever.  The library administration has consistently always wanted to please city administrators so any cuts that are asked for are always implemented.  After years of this kind of cutting, we are facing a shortage of staff.  An analysis of our supporter database illustrated that our supporters believe that library staff are an integral part of the library service.  It’s also a sad reality to talk about this in 2015, but we are a female dominated workplace and it seems that government continually puts their focus on us for cuts.  

Historically when Melvil Dewey founded the profession he said he could recruit a workforce with high morals for little pay and that has been our legacy.  With part-time work comes no benefits and no pensions and other less than optimum working conditions which all adds to a less expensive workplace.  

Q: How come workers feel unable to “give back to the community” in a satisfying way? What is impeding their ability to do that; what aspect(s) of working part-time inhibits workers from doing their job the way they would like to?

A: We are not against part-time work. It has a role to play in a female dominated workplace where childcare is such an important issue. The unstable working conditions are an impediment to our part-timers being the best they can be despite their best efforts.  Our part-timers are constantly looking for more hours so they are working in multiple locations.  When you are doing a job part-time, it often means you may still be carrying a full workload so you are struggling to complete that in fewer hours.  You are not in one place long enough to get to know the public as well.  You always just seem to be arriving or leaving.  Because you are working on getting as many hours as you can, you tend not to take vacation time.  You do not get sick days so you come in when you are ill.  It becomes more and more just a job with a paycheque instead of a professional calling.

Q: Would you consider this issue of precarious work within TPL to be particular to women especially?

A: It’s definitely a women’s issue. Yes we have more women in our workplaces. I believe for the most part we are not comfortable in the political arena and therefore do not advocate for our interests the best that we can.  We just become more accepting. At one time, women entered the profession and left it when they married.  It was viewed as a genteel profession.

Of course, the workforce has changed entirely, but this still seems to be the dominant attitude amongst administrators. Our young people, and our workers from different ethnocultural backgrounds are suffering the most.  There simply are not opportunities.  We get paid decently in TPL and that was a struggle for the first many years since amalgamation. But now the struggle is towards our working conditions. It is no longer acceptable to have workers side by side who do not have the same access to benefits, to pensions, to vacation, to training, etc.  If there is need for a part-time worker because we have analyzed the workplace and [it] is what we need, that is fine.  But we shouldn’t be looking at part-time workers as a cheaper labour force.

In the City of Toronto most of the workers are full time. The rate of part-time in the city is 34%.  If you remove the recreation workers who make up 25% and suffer many of the same working conditions as us, the rate is only 9%.  How can we justify this dichotomy?  In the Poverty Reduction Strategy that has just been adopted by the City of Toronto there is a whole section on employment and mention of precarious work.  But the city isn’t doing anything to change things for its own employees.  Why should it be acceptable for the ladies in the library to have no benefits and no access to pensions, and the men in the engineering department to be full time with benefits, pensions, etc?  The City of Boston is doing some interesting work in this area. They have a women’s bureau headed by the mayor.  It looks at the many different factors related to women’s work.  We need that in Toronto.  We are not going to turn things around overnight but we must have a long term plan that looks at these issues.  

The library service has been underfunded in respect to its budget as well as its staff.  This has come at a great expense of the library service. Yet the library service is so well used in Toronto.  Busiest urban public library in the world.  We need the leadership to change this around.  It is no longer acceptable.

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