Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Library workers refuse to be quiet in equal-pay fight

Five weeks into strike, Vancouver employees mix helpfulness, resolve on city's picket lines
Aug 25, 2007 04:30 AM

Western Canada Bureau Chief

Vancouver–You can take the librarians out of the library, but you can't stop them from knowing the answers to your questions.

On the picket lines for the first time in their 77-year history, Vancouver library workers have turned their knowledge into a one-stop information booth for tourists and residents.

"Just keep going four blocks down this street. The Chapters is on your left," picket captain Peter DeGroot advised one slightly lost pedestrian this week.

"The bus stop is on that side."

As the five-week-long strike drags through the dog days of August, the city's library workers are taking a stand and answering questions while walking the picket line.

With wi-fi and cellphones, library workers have been giving out directions to tourists and answering queries about books, public washrooms and bus schedules. For anyone needing a fix of reading materials, library workers have also set up their own book bin.

Alex Youngberg, president of CUPE local 391, said library workers weren't sure what to do on the picket lines at first.

"The resolve is even stronger than it was in the beginning because there is a realization that we just finally had enough," she said. "It irritates us to no end that we have to beg for pay equity."

Library workers, who like other striking civic workers have been out since July 26, have received an offer of 17.5 per cent in wage increases over five years.

After two weeks of no talking, the city offered contracts Thursday to the union representing the 2,500 striking inside workers.

"Everybody wants this strike to end as soon as possible," said city spokesperson Tom Timm. He said the city wants the strike over by Labour Day, Sept. 3.

The union put a statement out on its website yesterday, saying the bargaining team had gone through the two different offers and contacted the city to explore reopening talks.

For the library workers, the contentious issue remains pay equity.

Simon Fraser University political science professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen said a starting salary for a library worker in Vancouver is $27,000, while a labourer working for the city starts at $43,000.

"The union in this case has a very good argument that because the province does not have pay-equity legislation, it's up to the union to negotiate it," she said. "What the library workers are arguing is they're not paid well and they're claiming this entry-level wage is below the poverty line."

The difference between Toronto and Vancouver, said Laura Safarian, a librarian at Vancouver's main downtown branch, is that Ontario has pay-equity legislation, while British Columbia does not.

The library workers want a point system in place that rewards them for their education and skills. Many entry-level workers coming into the municipal library system have master's degrees, but are paid less than entry-level labourers hired by the city who need only a high school diploma.

In Toronto, entry-level library workers earn $7 an hour more than they do in Vancouver, a fact management does not dispute. Police and firefighters also earn more money in Toronto than in Vancouver.

"Why do we have to be punished for being educated?" Safarian said. "Society values strength and the ability to shovel more than they value literacy skills and information technology skills."

The city's chief librarian, Paul Whitney, said education is only one factor in determining pay rates.

The difficulty in creating a job evaluation system that compares different positions to worth is that it comes down to a subjective process, Whitney said.

In Regina, where library workers were on strike for two months and pay equity was one of the issues raised, Allan Kozachuk with the Regina Public Library said there was an agreement to review the issue.

Four years later, Kozachuk, who works in human resources, said the library and its workers are now at the point of finalizing the plan. "The next step is to meet collectively and start looking at implementing the new plan and hopefully resolving the pay-equity issue," he said.

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