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Library board applies for arbitration to end 36-day strike

Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library workers have been on strike since July 21 when negotiations came to a head

In an effort to end the 36-day strike that has kept Bradford’s library closed, the employer, which is the library, has applied to the province for arbitration.

The news came shortly before 4 p.m. on Friday Aug. 25, in a release from library CEO Matthew Corbett, in which he announced the library board had applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) to request first collective agreement arbitration.

If the OLRB approves the request, it will appoint a neutral third party, which could be a single arbitrator or could be a board of arbitration, who will review submissions and evidence from the union and the employer about the issues they have not been able to settle during bargaining.

Afterwards, the arbitrator will issue a final and binding decision.

Workers at the Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library have been on strike since July 21 when negotiations over their first collective agreement came to a head.

“Our goal has always been to achieve a negotiated collective agreement with CUPE 905. However, this strike has gone on for too long and it is time to take appropriate steps to reopen the library and continue serving our community," Corbett said in the release. "Up to this point, negotiations have not resulted in adequate progress, so we are taking the steps necessary to resolve outstanding issues and reopen the community’s library. We are prepared to accept the results of a neutral third-party arbitrator."

A statement from council was posted to the town’s website shortly after, which expressed support for the library board’s decision.

“We have remained committed to working with the bargaining teams to come to a resolution, but there has been little progress in negotiations and the union has shown an unwillingness to move from their current position. A neutral third-party arbitrator is a necessary step to resolving outstanding issues and reopening the library to our community,” the statement said.

The union wasn't able to provide comment on the arbitration request in time for publication.

The announcements came one day after workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 905, which is representing the 36 striking library workers, held a community barbecue and story-time event on Thursday evening, as a way to continue offering some services while the library remains closed and to thank community members for their support.

During an interview at the event, CUPE Local 905 president Katherine Grzejszczak confirmed progress on negotiations was slow, especially after short-lived talks broke down last week.

For the first time since July 21, talks had resumed on Aug. 16, but by the following day, negotiations had once again stalled.

The union headed back to bargaining after the employer provided a new offer, but the union said the employer was unwilling to discuss the union’s counter-proposal.

Grzejszczak declined to discuss the specifics of that counter-proposal, but did reveal some details.

“All I can say about that is it’s still the $1.35. We thought we were making it into something more palatable, but at the end of three-year contract, it would still be the same wage increase, but it was spread out differently,” she said.

Grzejszczak clarified that there had been give and take on both sides, and said that even though last week’s talks did not result in an agreement, there was still movement on some issues.

Still, wages remain the sticking point, as the union is asking for an increase of $1.35 per hour per year for two years.

“If the offer for the $1.35 were there, it would get resolved within 24 hours and the library would be reopened within 24 hours,” she said.

Until then, Grzejszczak has repeatedly said workers are prepared to remain on strike for as long as it takes, and in the meantime appreciates the donations and supports from other union groups as well as supports from the community.

In statements released on the library’s website, Corbett has stated that the union’s request “is unsustainable for the library as it exceeds the library’s budgetary constraints,” and “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.”

Follow-up questions sent to Corbett about those budgetary constraints and whether or not the budget could be adjusted or expanded to accommodate the union’s request were not answered in time for publication.

Workers welcome community

Those in attendance on Thursday evening enjoyed hamburgers and hot dogs, as library worker, Michelle DeGasperis, led a group of young children in songs and activities before reading them a story.

Children and adults were also able to enjoy music and games as well as face painting and balloon art including animals, flowers, swords and wands by Minerva's Creations.

Special guest, Candace Rennick, CUPE national secretary-treasurer, also read ‘Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type’ by Doreen Cronin to children before speaking to the crowd.

“I want to just send a message today and my message to you is simple. I want to say thank you for your service. I want to say thank you for your sacrifice. I know that it has not been easy being out on this picket line for 35 days, and I know that you would much rather be inside providing services to the people of this community,” she said.

Rennick spoke about the importance of fighting for workers’ rights and while she acknowledged those fights are never easy, she promised that in the end, it would be worth it, before announcing the first instalment of a donation from CUPE to the local’s strike fund in the amount of $10,000.

“You belong to the largest, strongest union in the country and I promise you, you will not be alone; we will be here with you every single step of the way,” she said.

In an interview afterwards, Rennick echoed Grzejszczak’s sentiment of holding the line.

“We’re going to be out here for as long as it takes until they get the deal that they deserve. We’re going on to five weeks now. If it takes another five weeks or longer, we’re in it for the long haul to ensure that these workers are not living in this community in poverty, and that’s what they’re doing right now,” she said.

Support expressed

Rennick wasn’t the only guest that evening though, as Ward 1 councillor and library board vice-chair Cheraldean Duhaney also visited to speak with workers.

“I was invited by some of the workers and the union to come and listen, and of course it doesn’t hurt to listen. Our library is a very important resource in our community. I remain optimistic that a resolution can be reached soon, so our library workers can get back to continue serving our community,” she said.

When asked if there was anything in particular she could do as the board’s vice-chair to help reach that resolution, Duhaney suggested it was best left to the bargaining team.

“We trust those at the bargaining table, that they’re going to do their job. We trust what they’re doing, so we just have to continue staying hopeful that this will be resolved,” she said.

Duhaney’s appearance came after former board vice-chair and Coun. Jonathan Scott released a statement on Aug. 21 in which he explained his hesitation to speak out sooner.

“I did this out of respect for the bargaining process and because of the independence of library boards, an important part of Ontario law that exists to ensure libraries are free from political interference as centres of free expression,” he said in the statement posted to social media.

Scott emphasized that he was only expressing his personal opinions and that he felt the relationship between workers and employers should be based on respect as union activities are “hard-won rights” in society.

“I want this situation resolved with a fair deal that delivers the wage increase workers need,” he said, while adding “I am optimistic both sides will be able to negotiate a fair deal for our workers, and that the library will reopen to serve its patrons soon.”

Later that same day, board member Dillon McDowell released his own statement on social media, firmly backing workers.

“I am honoured to express my unwavering support for the library workers’ fight for $1.35. As both a board member and an advocate for justice, I firmly stand behind their pursuit of fair representation and inclusivity within our library system,” he said in his statement.

McDowell explained he was standing in solidarity with workers based on his work advocating for fairness and his experiences as a person with a disability, which makes him familiar with the inequities non-dominant groups can face.

“I wholeheartedly support CUPE’s petition for $1.35, not only because it aligns with my personal values, but because it aligns with the principles of equity and justice that our library and our community hold dear,” he said, and called on the community to unite in support of the library workers.

Follow-up questions sent to both Corbett and Licinio Miguelo, current chair of the library board, were not answered in time for publication.

Coun. Peter Ferragine also release a statement on Aug. 19 clarifying his comments caught on a hot mic prior to the beginning the regular meeting of council on Aug. 15.

Among other things, he could be heard saying “a lot of it’s all going to be wasted time on open forum,” but Ferragine explained his comment was not in relation to the group of library workers and supporters who were the only ones to speak during open forum, but rather about a group representing the Tec-We-Gwill Women’s Institute.

“As council, we do not see the people signed up on the list for open forum and I had assumed on top of the library workers speaking, that the Tec-We-Gwill group would also take to the mic. I said ‘wasted time in open forum’ because staff had already met with Tec-We-Gwill to speak about their needs and what they provide, and the report had already made a recommendation that works for both parties, which I was in favour of as you hear me speak to it later on in the evening,” he said in his statement.

The group was instead present to provide a deputation to council.

Ferragine also took time in his statement to express his appreciation for the library.

“I love our library, take my children there frequently and hope to have it open ASAP. I take this situation very seriously,” he said.

In response to the statements of support, Grzejszczak said she suspects people are realizing that the union’s request for an increase of $1.35 per hour per year for two years is a reasonable one.

“I think for folks like Jonathan Scott, they’ve actually heard their constituents and they care about the services and they care about their constituents having access to the services, and they care about workers being treated fairly when it comes to compensation,” she said.

Broader impacts

The longer the library remains closed the broader the implications become for the wider community.

With neighbouring Bradford District High School set to begin the school year in a little less than two weeks, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, DeGasperis said students could be “massively” impacted if the strike isn’t resolved.

Many students visit the library during and after school, for a variety of reasons including to study and do homework, but also as a place of respite, DeGasperis explained.

“It’s a place just to socialize. In high school, it’s all about your image with other kids, but over here, you can just shut down for a little while,” she said, emphasizing the importance of being able to take a break from the pressures of high school and escape those walls for a while.

For students who might not have access to that space, “it’s going to be really, really hard,” she said.

DeGasperis described the library during the lunch hour as “literally full,” and front desk workers estimated that more than 100 students from BDHS make their way to the library at lunch due to space limitations at the school, and described the sight of so many students filing towards the library like a migration.

It’s not just to eat lunch either, as DeGasperis described students socializing, playing chess, playing board games, spending time on their phones, studying on laptops and doing research.

While BDHS students fill the library during the lunch hour, students from Holy Trinity Catholic High School and some elementary schools also make use of the space after school hours, according to DeGasperis.

“A lot of them, their parents are working, so they’ll come here to wait and do their homework here. Then, because we’re a commuter town, the parents will pick them up here and take them home later,” she said.

If the library remains closed into the school year, she doesn’t know where those students will go.

Newborns and their mothers are also feeling the affects of the closure.

CJ McClease, customer service specialist at the library, went on maternity shortly before the strike to care for Callum Paglairoli, who is now eight weeks old.

Prior to the strike, McClease was making use of the free breast feeding support classes offered by the library, but the library closure means those classes aren’t currently available.

While she’s thankful the online databases are still available, CJ said the in-class support was invaluable.

“I was able to meet another mother and her newborn, and her older child, and learn experience from her. I met an allied health nurse, who had years of experience, years of knowledge. She gave me diagrams and she allowed me to take pictures of things from her books. In that two hours I spent with her, she gave me so much knowledge, that started my path on where to go, what to do, and how to start things,” she said.

For now, her closest option for those classes requires her to drive all the way to Barrie and back three times a week, or else find a way to cover the cost of having a private lactician make house calls.

While McClease is looking forward to the library reopening so parents and soon-to-be parents can take advantage of resources including: breast feeding support class, parental classes and courses, the research library and databases, story-time events and in-person connections, the closure hasn’t changed her opinion of the strike.

“I am supportive of my colleagues, I’m supportive of the cause, and we’re fighting for $1.35 so that I can feed my children. ... I’m happy that we’re fighting for what we believe in,” she said.

Since many councillors have voiced support for families, McClease hopes they will be supportive of the workers’ efforts to achieve better wages.

“Children cost money, and I’m not the only mother. Most of my coworkers, they have children. I’m not the only one in this position. I’m simply the only one with a newborn,” she said.

Friday marked Day 36 of the strike, which makes it one of the longest library worker strikes in Ontario history, with only Essex County’s 231-day strike which ended in February 2017 being longer, according to the union.

While the collective agreement would be overseen by the town’s library board, the funding for the board and approval of board decisions comes from council.

Library board members include Licinio Miguelo, chair; Coun. Cheraldean Duhaney, vice chair; Coun. Joseph Giordano; Ferguson Mobbs; Jen Turner; Diana Sheeler and Dillon McDowell.

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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