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Bradford library workers still without collective agreement

‘It was like we didn’t even go on strike. Nothing has changed,' says worker who noted tension, resentment and low morale among staff

More than two and a half months after Bradford’s striking library workers were mandated back to work without a collective agreement, they’re still left waiting for answers. 

But they could see some progress early in the new year.

Both the employer (which is the library) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 905, which is representing the 34 (previously 36) library workers, are set to participate in arbitration meetings on Jan. 8 and 11, but it is unknown exactly how long after that it might take to receive a binding decision from the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).

The workers were mandated back to work on Oct. 4 after the OLRB agreed on Sept. 29 to grant the employer's request for arbitration of the workers’ first collective agreement, putting an end to the 71-day strike, which began on July 21 when negotiations came to a head.

According to library chief executive officer Matthew Corbett, the employer wants “an arbitration award that orders a reasonable collective agreement.”

Wendy Zwaal, bargaining unit chair, is trying to remain optimistic, but has concerns based on how irregular negotiations had been.

“No one can say what’s going to happen, because this just doesn’t happen,” she said in reference to how rare it is for negotiations over a first collective agreement to go arbitration.

While Zwaal said no employees have faced repercussions for being outspoken on the picket line, and no one has had their roles or responsibilities changed, she still described a “toxic” environment for workers.

“Instead of wondering, how much do all the powers that be care, we now know that they don’t,” she said, noting the workers are almost stuck in a sort of purgatory “because we came back to the same situation that we left,” and the loss of trust “is phenomenal.”

One library worker, Alex (not their real name), agreed to speak on condition of anonymity out of concern for being disciplined for sharing their experiences since returning to work.

“It was like we didn’t even go on strike. Nothing has changed,” they said. “For the most part there’s a lot of tension and resentment.”

That hasn’t been helped by what Zwaal described as a lack of communication from management, which she noted has been an ongoing issue since before the strike.

“It’s almost to the point that communication is worse than it was before,” she said. “We hear very little, so it feels like we’re working in a vacuum sometimes.”

Despite all the issues, Zwaal still sees workers doing what they can to stay strong to help library patrons and Alex agrees their colleagues are staying professional for the public, but behind the scenes, “morale is so low,” that “nobody wants to do anything extra,” with few workers attending the holiday work party and almost none wanting to be part of a float for the Santa Claus parade.

The lack of morale is partially due to the responses from some members of council that have left workers feeling disrespected, according to Alex, who recalled suggestions staff should find jobs elsewhere, police being called on striking staff and a video shared on social media suggesting a local restaurant could help provide services while the strike kept the library closed.

“Once our agreement comes, the dust will settle a bit, but I think the damage is done. The things that some of our town leaders said over the summer are just unforgettable,” Alex said.

Library decisions continue driving a wedge with workers

From the workers’ perspective, the situation hasn’t been helped by the library’s ongoing decisions to spend money on legal fees fighting the workers’ wage request of $1.35 per hour per year for two years, which the union estimated would increase costs to the town by $42,000 in the first year and another $42,000 in the second year.

According to a report to the library board during it’s Nov. 20 meeting, the library has spent $149,916 on legal fees this year, from a budget of just $10,000.

“Their intention was to never give us that money and they would rather pay lawyers than pay their staff. That is so hurtful. That just says ‘We don’t value you and your work,’ ” Alex said.

When asked why the library prioritized spending on legal fees, Corbett explained “the costs related to labour relations and collective bargaining are privileged,” but added “the library has been focused on bargaining a contract that is fair for employees and respects the taxpayer.”

Further upsetting workers, Corbett submitted a report as part of the same meeting which listed a human resources manager as a must-have position for $102,800 per year, needed for “enhancing labour relations.”

“With all our talks with council and library board members, that’s all they got from our conversation, that we need an HR manager? That’s not what we need right now. We just need our wages paid fairly and we need transparency in the workplace,” Alex said.

While Corbett didn’t directly answer how the new position would enhance labour relations, he did say it “would fill a need in the organization and will be considered during budget deliberations.”

Michael Owen

About the Author: Michael Owen

Michael Owen has worked in news since 2009 and most recently joined Village Media in 2023 as a general assignment reporter for BradfordToday
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