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'I'm angry': Striking Bradford library workers vow to keep fighting

‘We don’t want to be out here. I want to go back to work. I have kids to support,' says frustrated worker; union says they would return to bargaining upon a new offer

As of today, workers at the Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library were officially entering Day 22 of their job action, marking the beginning of their fourth week since July 21 when they went on strike over wages and conditions.

On Thursday, several workers were willing to share their experiences after three full weeks on the picket line, as the library doors remained locked.

Michelle DeGasperis was preparing to host a storytime event on the picket line Thursday morning, in an effort to continue offering programming to the community during the strike.

“I’m just tired. I’m angry at the town. The town just doesn’t care,” she said.

Despite that, DeGasperis is still holding firm.

“I don’t want to stop, because ... I don’t want to be perceived as a pushover. ... I can buy winter clothes. I can stand outside. I can petition. I can walk around neighbourhoods. Whatever we do we do,” she said in reference to the CUPE Local 905’s request that the 36 library workers it represents receive a raise of $1.35 per hour each year for two years.

Degasperis was also grateful that being out of work for three weeks hadn’t hit her finances too hard.

“My children are all grown up now, they’re all independent. I’m in the position that I’m one of the lucky few people, but I will not stop, because everyone else, some people have two jobs,” she said.

While Katherine Grzejszczak, president of CUPE Local 905, declined to comment on the specifics of workers compensation while on the picket line, several FAQs from various other CUPE locals indicate that strike pay usually starts at $15 per hour with members usually picketing for four hours per day five days per week.

“Because people’s wages are so low here and they work so few hours, it’s sad to say some of them are actually having more income on the picket line than when they were working,” she said, adding that some workers make the Ontario minimum wage, which is currently $15.50 per hour.

Of the 36 striking workers, staff said the 27 part-time workers average about 20 hours per week, but some staff work fewer.

Natasha Philpott, the marketing and communications co-ordinator at the library and former editor of BradfordToday, expressed her frustration with the prolonged strike.

“We don’t want to be out here. I want to go back to work. I have kids to support. I’ve only been at this job for six months and this is my first ever job where I’ve been on a strike, and I’m quite disappointed by the passing of the buck and the library board not doing anything,” she said.

On the upside, Philpott said the response from residents has been "overwhelmingly positive", especially since Tuesday, when workers began going door to door canvassing various neighbourhoods.

“Everyone has been very supportive at the door, and encouraging. It was a positive experience. We were nervous at first, but once you get going, people understand and they’re on our side,” she said, adding that to canvas one street took 1.5 hours “because we’d get into such deep conversations with people that are affected by this and they’re upset.”

Philpott is also dealing with a lack of health benefits for her two sons, who are becoming rowdy and restless without having access to library activities.

“I’m praying that they don’t need to go to the hospital or the dentist or knock each other’s teeth out anytime soon, because our benefits have been cut off,” she said.

Grzejszczak clarified that the union had asked the employer to continue workers’ benefits throughout the strike and in return, the union offered to pay the premium, but said the employer declined.

“We told them the union would cover the premium so it would be at no cost to them and they refused,” she said.

Both Philpott and DeGasperis worry about the impacts on young readers who haven’t had access to the library for so long, including the 600 kids who were signed up for the annual TD Summer Reading Club program which began on June 24 this year, less than one month before the strike.

Both shared that their children’s teachers were regularly impressed with their reading levels upon returning from summer vacation, which they attributed to summer reading programs and the ability to borrow plenty of books.

“Now, they can’t get a book. The parents, are they going to go to Chapters and buy a book? That’s expensive. This was free. Who’s going to buy a book when within a day, the kid has read it?” DeGasperis asked.

She also related the story of a family of newcomers to Canada in which the grandmother would regularly bring her granddaughter to the library while the parents were working, allowing the young girl to meet new friends and the grandmother a chance to read.

“We’re killing two birds with one stone: the child is learning how to get along with other children and the grandparents are learning English,” she said.

Richard Fernandes’ family were newcomers from Portugal, both on his mother’s side and his father’s side and he agreed.

“That’s how my grandmother learned to speak English. When I was a little kid ... a senior learning at a Grade 1 level, it’s easy for them, so my grandmother all of the sudden took English as a second language. Now my grandmother can speak good English,” he said.

Fernandes drew parallels between the struggle of library workers with that of 3,000 Metro workers on strike at 27 grocery store locations in the GTA, and took issue with the claim that meeting the union’s request for library workers would increase taxes for residents.

“People will think, ‘Oh, I don’t want my taxes to go up.’ They’re playing on that which is terrible, because you want to lift everybody up,” he said.

DeGaspers shared similar frustrations.

“I live here, my taxes went up last year. They go up every year, but our salaries didn’t go up, so what happened? I don’t understand,” she said.

On Friday, Matthew Corbett, library CEO, released a statement clarifying some of those specifics.

“CUPE 905’s wage increase would cause a 2.6 per cent increase in the library tax rate in year one and a 5.2 per cent increase over two years, directly affecting your property taxes,” he said.

Gail Hazlett, who started working at the library in February, said she’s been a resident of Bradford for 39 years with family roots to the area going back longer, and she long had a dream of working for the town.

“I think we’re all in a little bit of disbelief that we’re still here. We’re still fighting for it, but the question is: How much longer are they going to leave us out here? I know we’re all going to be out here for as long as it takes, but it would be really nice to hear something from the other side. The ball’s in their court; we’re just waiting for them to serve it back,” she said.

In order to keep them happy, Hazlett has taken her two toddlers to libraries out of town for programming, and has two nephews who regularly ask her when Bradford’s library will reopen.

“I hate saying ‘I don’t know,’ but I don’t know,” she said.

In the meantime, she’s being careful with her spending.

“You have to be way more mindful of buying groceries. Put yourself on a limit. Gas prices are astronomical. I’m grateful that my spouse has a full-time job, but for some that don’t, it’s hard and it’s stressful,” she said.

Khalida Qaderi wanted to share her view as someone who came to Canada from Afghanistan 18 years ago.

“Coming to Canada, this was my first experience being on the picket line. I never thought we were going to be here for three weeks. I really feel so angry about the town,” she said.

Qaderi said she never had the chance to visit a library growing up and she wants better for her children, including her son who is in Grade 4 and used to visit the library for both books and chess club.

“Now the summer is almost done and what are the kids doing? My son is at home watching TV or playing on the iPad, because there is nowhere to go,” she said.

In the meantime Qaderi has taken her son to the Newmarket library to help fill the void, but wonders how much longer the strike will continue.

“Yesterday, I was thinking maybe they are doing it because they want us to go and look for another job. I have to pay my bills. I have a mortgage, and also I want to have in mind that my job is safe and I’m going back, but now I’m thinking about what’s going to happen. Am I going to be without a job?” she said.

On Friday, Mayor James Leduc released a statement sympathizing with residents and encouraging a return to negotiations.

“I understand and apologize for the impacts this strike and the library closure have caused our community. I am disappointed that a resolution has not yet been reached, and I plea to both parties — return to the bargaining table so that our Library can reopen its doors to the community. Our residents deserve to have their Library back,” he said.

Grzejszczak explained that despite new and previous calls for the union to return to the bargaining table, the town’s library board has yet to reach out with any new offer, meaning the union would be returning to the exact same deal from which they walked away on July 21.

“We would not say no to continue bargaining if they were to make an offer. We would always sit down with them and hear out what the new offer is, but they’ve made no new offer beyond what was on the table on July 21 at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said.

In his statement, Leduc also called out “inaccuracies” from recent claims “alluding to discriminatory employment practices.”

“I am proud of both organizations of the Town and Library ... I want to make it clear that throughout both organizations, we do not tolerate any form of discrimination and hold our employment practices to a high level of conduct,” he said.

Those comments were likely in reference to a release from CUPE on Wednesday which claimed that for years, the mostly-women library workers have been denied regular raises, while male-dominated departments and management have not.

“There’s no political will from Mayor Leduc and the eight council members to offer these women a real wage increase. It’s sexism,” Grzejszczak said in the release.

The claims in CUPE’s Wednesday release could not be verified in time for publication.

In the meantime, Grzejszczak is confident in the union’s ability to financially support striking workers, both with funds from the national union and with help from the union dues from more than 6,000 workers who are part of Local 905.

They’ve also received help from the Ontario Federation of Labour who made a $5,000 donation to the local Wednesday in addition to a prior donation of $5,000 from CUPE Ontario.

“Unions really pool their money together to support workers when they’re in these really difficult circumstances so that people aren’t being starved out on the picket line and having to take a deal that they don’t want and isn’t fair to them,” she said.

Grzejszczak reiterated what the union is trying to accomplish for the workers in order to end the strike.

“We’ve been very clear about what’s needed to settle this labour dispute. We’ve already agreed to two per cent for 2022 and we’re looking for an additional $1.35 an hour for each of the two remaining years,” she said.

Corbett released a statement on Aug. 1 in which he cited “budgetary constraints,” as one of the reasons the board could not agree to the union’s request.

However, Grzejszczak pointed to a press release from Sep 23, 2022, in which the previous chair of the library board claimed that throughout the pandemic the library had saved $460,000 and invested more than $200,000 into reserves.

Additionally, as reported by BradfordToday on Nov 27, 2022, Ward 2 Coun. Jonathan Scott, then vice-chair of the board, remarked that the next board was being left in “excellent financial shape” with the investment of $1M in reserves.

Grzejszczak felt this was at odds with the messaging from the current board.

“The longer this goes on, the more money they’re saving in payroll, the more we see the money that the library saved during COVID and during the last budget year, the less it feel like this is about the money and the more it feels like this is just about council digging their heels in and saying ‘We will keep you out here and you will continue working for poverty wages,’ ” she said.

On Thursday, Corbett reiterated via email that the library is committed to finding a resolution to the disagreement with workers, but he explained that using reserve funds was not the solution.

“We are unable to fund salary increases from reserves, as it is unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible. Furthermore, reserves are designed for capital items/expenses, and are not eligible for operational expenses, which is where salaries are drawn from,” he said.

Questions were sent to Corbett regarding complaints made about his wage and whether it impacted the ability to budget raises for striking workers, as well as a request for clarification of his claim from the Aug. 1 press release that "an across-the-board dollar increase in the hourly rate ... exacerbates existing pay gaps between jobs"; however, answers were not provided in time for publication.

--With files from BradfordToday Staff

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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