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Union, town offer up details behind stalled Bradford library talks

‘Flat-rate wage increases actually help narrow the divide between low-wage earners and high-wage earners. ... What that tells me is that this CEO doesn’t understand pay equity, and what it means to be compliant,’ says union official

New details provide a peek behind the curtain of stalled labour negotiations at the Bradford library, where workers walk the picket line for the 13th straight day Wednesday.

Both the CEO and the union representing workers at the Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library provided separate messages on Tuesday, ahead of a closed meeting of council set to discuss library labour relations.

In the afternoon, Matthew Corbett, library CEO, released a statement providing details of the employer’s most-recent offer for the workers’ first collective agreement, which the union rejected, resulting in workers being on strike since Friday, July 21.

“I understand the closure of our liibrary to in-person services has affected our community, especially during the summer months when many families rely on the library’s activities in their daily schedules. We value our employees and worked hard at the bargaining table to avoid a strike,” he said in the release.

It details the employer’s offer of an 11 per cent wage increase staggered over four years with:

  • 3 per cent retroactive to Jan 1, 2023
  • 3 per cent effective Jan 1, 2024
  • 2.5 per cent effective Jan 1, 2025
  • 2.5 per cent effective Jan 1, 2026

Katherine Grzejszczak, president of CUPE Local 905, which is representing the 36 striking library workers, explained why the union felt that offer wasn’t sufficient.

“Inflation in Canada has hit 14 per cent between 2021 and 2023. If you’re making $20 on Jan. 1 2023, you would only be making $22.30 by the end of 2026. That is still a poverty wage and that is why we rejected that deal,” she said.

Grzejszczak was speaking a rally hosted by the union outside the Bradford and District Memorial Community Centre, where both the closed and regular meetings of council had been relocated from their usual spot in at the library, which has been closed since the strike began.

The rally followed a community barbecue hosted by the union at the library picket line on Monday evening where they estimated at least 250 people came out to show support and grab a bite to eat.

Surrounded by more than 50 attendees, including supporters and guests from other unions, Grzejszczak noted that the employer has cut back wages over the last decade, leading some staff to be “red circled,” meaning they are not eligible for a raise, they are not eligible for full-time hours and they are not eligible for health benefits.

In the release, Corbett said both parties “reached consensus on several issues,” including “red circled” staff where they would receive an annual bonus equal to the wage increases offered to the other library workers.

Grzejszczak confirmed the union initially agreed to that deal, but later decided against bringing to it to members for ratification.

“We hadn’t ratified it as the bargaining committee because we didn’t feel that what was in that contract met the clearly expressed needs of our members,” she said.

Grzejszczak also confirmed that at 3 a.m. on July 21, at the end of an 18-hour bargaining session, the union withdrew their request for health benefits for part-time employees in an effort to negotiate a $1.35-per-hour raise per year for two years for staff.

In the release, Corbett claimed that would exceed the library’s budgetary constraints, but no further information about those constraints was made available.

He also said the union made that request as “a new proposal” in “the final days of bargaining,” but Grzejszczak couldn’t understand why Corbett would say that, as according to her, the union had been asking for a flat rate from the start, and the only change they made was actually to decrease the amount for which they were asking.

“We had $1.50 on the table until the last few days of bargaining, so none of this was a surprise to them. In the last two days we pulled back to $1.35 from the $1.50 in order to try to reach a deal,” she said.

The CEO ruled out the concept of a flat-rate increase, and in the release said “it exacerbates existing pay gaps between jobs.”

Questions for clarification on how that would be the case were not answered in time for publication, and Grzejszczak rejected the notion.

“We don’t buy that. It’s just not true. Everybody in the bargaining unit would be seeing the exact same wage increase,” she said.

Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), was at the rally to support workers and said the impacts of flat-rate increases would be the opposite of the CEO’s claims.

“As a matter of fact, flat-rate wage increases actually help narrow the divide between low-wage earners and high-wage earners. It’s actually a far more equitable way to ensure pay equity across the board. ... What that tells me is that this CEO doesn’t understand pay equity, and what it means to be compliant,” she said.

OSBCU represent 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers in the public, Catholic, English, and French school systems across the province.

Walton, who started with the union more than 15 years ago and has been president for almost five years, said percentage increases are actually what skew the wage gap as top earners get further and further ahead while low-wage earners are left creeping, an issue with which she’s all too familiar.

“I represent 55,000 workers who did walk off the job illegally in the fall to demand better and to defeat Doug Ford and his use of the notwithstanding clause and imposed collective agreement, but it was also a fight about getting flat rate and really bring up the wages,” she said.

Walton drew a parallel to various other strikes currently taking place across the nation as part of a changing labour climate.

“Workers are not just putting up with whatever peanuts the employer thinks they deserve,” she said.

Jeff Irons was also at ther ally to support workers; he is the vice-president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and also the vice-president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 353 — to which Mayor James Leduc is also a member.

“I’ve sat at the negotiating table when James is on the union side of negotiations and he claimed to be a proud union member, and ... to know that one of my union brothers is standing in the way of this makes me sad,” he said.

Irons expected Leduc would already know how the union feels about the situation as they have sent him multiple emails.

“Coming from a labour background, someone who is now retired from the tools because of the benefits of a collective agreement that came through bargaining, he should know how important it is,” he said.

Irons, who started with the union in 1985 and has been vice-president since 2011, thinks the library workers deserve the increase they requested.

“Public libraries and the people who work in them are important to society. ... Give them a fair deal. A dollar thirty-five is not much to ask for in today’s economy of rising inflation coming out of COVID. These are front-line workers. These are people that make Bradford a great community, a place people want to come and live, and without the libraries it loses a bit of its soul, and Mayor Leduc should know that,” he said.

Many at the rally moved into the community centre to participate in public forum during the council meeting, in which Leduc again faced some criticism regarding his union history.

After the meeting, the mayor acknowledged the importance of the library to the community and explained the balance he is trying to find on “a very sensitive issue.”

“I’ve been on both sides of the table for over 16 years. I negotiated with the IBEW down at the University of Toronto to settle contracts and to get contracts,” he said.

While unions have a mandate to strike, Leduc felt they were best avoided and that going on strike was never his goal.

“Strikes do nothing for nobody. They don’t work. You try to settle your agreement at the table,” he said.

Both during and after the meeting, the mayor encouraged the union to return to bargaining, and in his release, Corbett said the employer was ready to return to the table “at any time.”

The union has repeatedly stated that before returning to the bargaining table, workers want to see the $1.35-per-hour wage increase each year over two years, and until then, Grzejszczak has repeatedly said the strike will last “as long as it takes.”

During the rally, she was hopeful that the closed-session meeting would result in the town reaching out to the union in the coming days.

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; 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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