Library workers could be forced to hit the books in Bradford, putting an end to the long-running strike.
The Ontario Labour Relations Board has approved the request of the library (which is the employer) to send the ongoing labour relations dispute to arbitration, and issued their decision Friday, with Matthew Corbett, library CEO, issuing a statement on Friday evening.
Bradford West Gwillimbury Library workers have been on strike since July 21, when negotiations over their first collective agreement came to a head.
The employer applied for binding arbitration of the first collective agreement on Aug. 25, and with that request granted, the next steps are for the board to determine if a single arbitrator or board of arbitration will be appointed, before a hearing date can be scheduled.
“During the waiting period, employees will return to work and our library will reopen for in-person services as soon as possible,” Corbett said in his release.
While the exact date on which workers will return and the library will reopen has yet to be determined, Katherine Grzejszczak, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 905, which is representing the 34 striking library workers, expects representatives from both the union and the library will meet Monday to work out the details.
“We are disappointed that after 71 days of striking for fair wages, these workers are now being forced back to work with no collective agreement,” she said when reached on Saturday afternoon, adding that in the meantime the picket at the library parking lot came down on Saturday morning.
While the union was previously representing 36 striking library workers, Grzejszczak said contracts for some workers expired during the course of the strike.
After an arbitrator or board of arbitrators are appointed, they will review submissions and evidence from the union and the employer and issue a final binding decision to which both the union and employer must adhere.
In the meantime, Grzejszczak said the union is investigating their legal options in response to the decision.
“To say that because workers have taken a hard position on making gains in their collective agreement, that it justifies taking away the right to strike is not right. This decision has implications for other workers that will be negotiating a first collective agreement,” she said.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour could not say how often first collective agreements go to arbitration for workers who have the right to strike, nor could they identify the last instance in which that happened.
The ministry did say that for the last rolling 12 months (Aug. 1, 2022 – July 31, 2023), 98.9 per cent of all collective bargaining agreements in Ontario were reached without strikes or lockouts.
In his decision on behalf of the board, Timothy Liznick noted that the union’s “refusal to consider any wage increase below that which it has arbitrarily set as its target does amount to maintaining an uncompromising position without reasonable justification.”
Despite some progress in other areas, wages have remained the sticking point of negotiations and the union has been requesting a wage increase of $1.35 per hour per year for two years for library workers.
“I feel that the union with very good reason, took a hard position on wages and we’ve reflected the wishes of the library workers in doing that,” Grzejszczak said.
Liznick acknowledged the union “can justify a wage increase, even a significant wage increase,” by pointing to higher wages in other libraries, by comparing wages of library workers to those of other municipal employees and by pointing to recent fluctuations in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which hit eight per cent in May of 2022.
However, Liznick also concluded none of these factors could “justify precisely the $1.35 proposal.”
While the union argued members would not be willing to ratify anything less than the $1.35 request, Liznick pointed to precedent from Canada Bread Company Limited, supra, in which the board said “Acting in conformity with the members’ wishes and instructions is not a sufficient answer to an accusation of conduct in conflict with statutory imperatives.”
Sec. 43(2)(b) of the Ontario Labour Relations Act says: “The Board shall consider and make its decision on an application ... and it shall direct the settlement of a first collective agreement by arbitration where ... it appears to the Board that the process of collective bargaining has been unsuccessful because of ... the uncompromising nature of any bargaining position adopted by the respondent without reasonable justification.”
Grzejszczak disagreed with the board’s finding.
“I don’t think this decision was fair. I don’t think it was just. I think that without the ability to withdraw our labour to improve our working conditions, including wages, workers don’t have any recourse to better their working conditions,” she said.
Liznick includes in his decision a chart of wage rates in effect at the library as of Jan. 1, 2023 and includes the number of workers in each grid level.
However, Grzejszczak noted the wages listed are the maximum for those positions, which in most cases, can only be obtained after working at the library for at least four years, and she explained that about half of the staff have turned over in the last two years.
While library workers asked by BradfordToday on Saturday declined to provide their individual responses to the decision, Grzejszczak said there’s a lot of anger and a sense of injustice among workers.
“This predominantly female bargaining unit has been disregarded by person after person in positions of power and authority, and this decision from the labour board is just the final example of that,” she said in reference to decisions from the library CEO, Mayor James Leduc, the library board and the majority of council.
However, some councillors have expressed support for library workers, including public statements from Ward 1 Coun. Cheraldean Duhaney and Ward 2 Coun. Jonathan Scott, while Grzejszczak confirmed other councillors were supportive as well.
“We would like to thank Jonathan Scott, Cheraldean Duhaney, (Ward 7 Coun.) Peter Dykie and (Ward 3 Coun.) Ben Verkaik for their support for library workers’ demands for fair wages,” she said.
The union is still planning to maintain their presence at council meetings in the hopes of getting their message across to more councillors, and remains open to the possibility of settling the contract before going to arbitration.
“If the employer were to make the union a new offer, we would continue bargaining,” Grzejszczak said.
While the picket was no longer in place, some library workers still attended the library parking lot on Saturday morning as previously planned, to hand out lawn signs to those wishing to show their support for workers, to collect donations for the Helping Hand Food Bank and to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“We had decided we were not going to officially strike, we were here for this day, and we wanted to respect this day. As a library worker we are here to support everybody. We don’t exclude anybody and it’s an important part of our Canadian history and it needs to be remembered,” Sharon McCardle said.
Longtime library worker Heidi Northover also spoke about the importance of learning about the impacts of colonization on Indigenous people.
“We have to acknowledge this community. We have a lot of people here in town who have ancestors or relations and we all have to acknowledge and respect it for what it is,” she said.
Friday marked Day 71 and the final day of the strike, which makes it one of the longest library worker strikes in Ontario history. Only Essex County’s 231-day strike, which ended in February 2017, was longer, according to the union.
Since its formation in 2001, CUPE Local 905 had not participated in a strike until this one, according to Grzejszczak.
While the collective agreement normally would have been 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 resignation at the end of August.