Dozens of Bradford District High School students flocked to the library this morning, despite the building being shuttered and its staff locked out.
The students used their lunch hour to protest the library’s ongoing closure and to enjoy free pizza and beverages with striking library workers and supporters, including Umar Abro, protest organizer and Ontario Young Liberals (OYL) York—Simcoe riding club president, on Friday.
Abro is in Grade 11 at the high school and estimates that about 70 per cent of the club's 60 members are too.
“The library’s been closed for more than two months now, and students are getting frustrated. You see at lunch time, they have no place to sit down except for the rec centre, which has hardly 10 seats in there,” he said in reference to the BWG Leisure Centre, directly beside the library.
While the centre has made some space for students in the lower level, a sign at the bottom of a stair case warns that students are prohibited in the upper level during school hours.
Library staff have previously estimated that more than 100 students come from BDHS to the library during their lunch hour, because there isn’t enough room in the school.
The Bradford West Gwillimbury Library has been closed since its workers went on strike July 21, when negotiations over their first collective agreement came to a head.
As the strike began during the summer break, Abro said many students didn’t initially feel the full impact of the closure until school resumed on Sept. 5, and brought with it a greater need for access to books, computers, printers, internet access, assistance from library staff and a decent place to study.
“That’s disturbing for the kids, especially for more than two months. In January they have their assessments, so they have to study and this was a peaceful place to study, with no noise and friendly staff, but right now they have no space,” he said.
Abro felt it was his duty to organize the protest so that students could raise their voices and let people know that they’re facing issues as a result of the closure.
“The board should know that students are suffering from this. It’s not just the workers and the council; it’s the students that are in between them,” he said.
While Abro said the main goal of the protest was to see the library reopen, he didn’t support the idea of seeing workers mandated to return from the picket line, which could happen if the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) approves the employer’s request for binding arbitration.
“They shouldn’t be forced to get back, they should be given the fair wage, so that everything is done properly. Forcing someone is not the solution to something,” he said, adding that even if the employer isn’t willing to meet the union’s request for increases, “they should do something that’s fair enough for them to live a good life.”
Despite some progress in other areas, wages have remained the sticking point of negotiations and the union is requesting a wage increase of $1.35 per hour per year for two years for library workers.
Katherine Grzejszczak, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 905, which is representing the 36 striking library workers, welcomed the support of students and the local OYL.
“We know the students use the library and they don’t have that right now, and so we’re really happy to see that they feel empowered to show their support and ask for the library to be reopened,” she said.
Despite difficulties reaching an agreement with the employer, Grzejszczak doesn’t agree with the employer’s decision to apply to arbitration, which was announced on Aug. 25.
“As a union we defend the right to strike. At the end of the day, it’s the only mechanism that we have to improve our working conditions and we will continue defending the right to strike for any worker,” she said.
While the effect of mandating workers back to the job would provide short-term relief for students trying to access the library, Grzejszczak feels it would leave other issues unresolved.
We are looking at the long-term quality of library services and imposing a collective agreement instead of the employer actually negotiating to resolve the underlying issues at this library is, in the long term, not going to result in a better service to the community,” she said.
While plans have not been finalized, Grzejszczak confirmed the union is considering making an appearance at the OLRB prior to their decision about arbitration.
“We want to be able to continue negotiating freely with the employer and not have a collective agreement imposed on us, and so whoever is making that decision, we want them to see the face of the workers that would have their right to strike taken away from them,” she said.
Grzejszczak also responded to a public statement Ward 4 Coun. Joseph Giordano, who sits on the library board, shared on social media Sept. 11, in which he clarified his position on the issue of the strike.
“I think Joseph Giordano is one of the main councillors who is responsible for the strike dragging. I’ve read his statement, and I didn’t see anything really in that statement that would indicate that he has shifted his position,” she said.
In the statement, Giordano explains he hadn’t spoken out on the issue prior to the application for arbitration out of respect for the bargaining process adding “details of bargaining, should always be done at the bargaining table.”
While he expected debate and criticism of the issue as “a healthy part of our society,” he added “I do not accept the hurtful insults and misinformation that have been hurled at some members of council and the library board.”
Grzejszczak doesn’t feel the union’s comments should be characterized as insults or personal attacks.
“I think what we’ve done is consistently held elected officials to account for their behaviour,” she said.
Giordano’s statement goes on to say he “had nothing but good intentions” to find a solution that balances the interests of various different groups within town, and that he and his family have been active users of the library.
“We always see their great value and have treated the workers with the upmost respect and friendliness,” he said.
However, Grzejszczak noted the statement included no apology for Giordano’s behaviour during past tensions between him and the union and workers.
“If he would like to lend support to library workers, then he should move a motion to settle this strike, whether at the library board or at the council meeting, and I saw nothing in that entire statement that would suggest that he is moving to resolve this strike,” she said.
While Giordano said in the statement that he is optimistic that an agreement between the library and the workers “will be reached in the near future,” Grzejszczak felt that didn’t go far enough.
“I think at this point in time, the community needs action and not empty statements,” she said.
Grzejszczak also addressed recent comments from Mayor James Leduc in which he claimed the union’s requested wage increase would have ripple effects and necessitate raises for about 450 of the town’s other employees, which he estimated would add $640,000 to the town's budget just in the first year, and cause a two per cent increase to town’s overall tax levy.
Grzejszczak questioned the validity of that argument and claimed settlements with other unions, such as the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793, have not been reflected in the wage increases to the rest of town workers.
“I think we want to see all workers rise, but I also don’t think that that’s a genuine statement. ... I think that’s an argument that the mayor’s now using to justify not giving some of the lowest paid town workers a fair increase that they’ve been asking for, for months,” she said.
Friday marked Day 57 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; Ward 1 Coun. Cheraldean Duhaney, vice chair; Ward 4 Coun. Joseph Giordano; Ferguson Mobbs; Jen Turner and Diana Sheeler.
Dillon McDowell was also originally a member of the board for the 2022-2026 term until his recent resignation at the end of August.