Why libraries – and library users – need their librarians and other library workers to be union members

Posted on November 14, 2014, 1:17 am
8 mins

Maureen O’Reilly, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, speaking in Toronto last weekend. Below: Renowned author Margaret Atwood on an Alberta union picket line, circa 2000, Doug Ford and his Brother Rob.

Doug Ford? Doug Ford? Who is Doug Ford again? 

I think he’s Rob Ford’s brother?

OK. Who is Rob Ford?

Didn’t I say back in the summer of 2011 that Margaret Atwood – and, by contrast, we all know who Ms. Atwood is – was the best thing that ever happened to Doug Ford?

Mr. Ford, in case you’ve forgotten already, was the former Toronto city councillor and sometime candidate for mayor of that city, elder brother of the frequently stupefied and nationally embarrassing mayor of the same last name.

Back in 2011, when the Ford Bros. were in the midst of their campaign to close public libraries, the renowned Canadian author Ms. Atwood gave Mr. Ford a good public spanking on Twitter – and about a quarter million people Tweeted in their support.

Mr. Ford should be grateful, I suggested in a blog post at the time. “When the bug spray has settled down after the next Toronto municipal election, history will likely not have much to say about you. Ms. Atwood, on the other hand, is someone whom history will remember. But a public slapdown by Ms. Atwood means that at least you might get a mention in a good book or something of the sort that would be kept in a library.”

Well, 18 days have passed since the Toronto civic election, and as predicted the elder Mr. Ford is pretty well forgotten – likely only to be remembered as a footnote in a book about Ms. Atwood.

But if Ms. Atwood turned out to have done a back-handed favour of sorts for him, his worst nightmare was Maureen O’Reilly, the president of the library staff union local at the Toronto Public Library, who played a central role in the brilliant campaign to save Toronto’s library system from the depredations of the crude neo-conservatism the Fords represented and gravely wounded the Fords in the process.

It’s probably too much to say Ms. O’Reilly and the library workers deserve credit for finishing off Ford Nation’s misrule at Toronto City Hall – no, the Fords pretty much accomplished that by themselves – but as President of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, CUPE Local 4948, she certainly did as much harm to their chances as she did good for the future of libraries in Canada’s largest city.

The union’s clever campaign, which took an image of dowdy Marian-the-Librarian spectacles and turned them into an instantly recognizable symbol of defiance, community and literacy was not just a key factor in turning away the Ford attack on libraries, it was a defence that could only have been organized by unionized library workers.

Unionized, of course, because being part of a union gives working people the protection and resources they need to run a campaign that may be unpopular with library managers and library boards, and is certain to be unpopular with the right-wing municipal politicians who go after libraries because they don’t read much themselves, and therefore view the 70-plus per cent of the population that use library services as a “special interest.”

That’s why people like the Fords – and their dear friend and mentor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper – hate unions so much.

But unionized librarians and library workers are the best defenders of libraries, Ms. O’Reilly told me at a conference we both attended in Toronto last weekend, because other people who should be effective defenders tend not to be, for a variety of reasons.

Library managers, and library board members too, are not as good at advocating for library services “because they tend to be team players,” she told me – and the team they’re playing for is the city council team. Often, they have ambitions themselves to be on council.

Library managers, she argued, are more vulnerable to discipline by senior managers and politicians, whereas “union membership gives you a platform, and a budget, to fight for library services.”

You can make a strong argument that even by simply looking out for the wellbeing of their own members – job security, better wages and the rest – library unions are protecting library services for the public.

“This is because they are resisting the ‘dumbing down’ of library work,” Ms. O’Reilly explained. Protecting their own jobs and those of their colleagues – a charge often thrown at union members as if it were a bad thing – protects the workers’ ability to provide the specialized help with information that is the true heart of library services.

With only their official “friends” – volunteers, board members, senior managers and the like – to protect them, she said, library budgets just keep getting trimmed. “It’s just the easiest thing to cut, because no one resists.”

Unionized library workers in Toronto resisted. The library board hated it. Their managers hated it. Politicians hated it. The Fords hated it with a special passion. But it worked.

Today, thanks to the campaign organized by Ms. O’Reilly and her sisters and brothers at the Toronto Public Library, cutting the system is largely off the table and there’s even talk of reinvesting in it.

It’s still just talk, she warned me, but that’s progress just the same.

That’s why it’s important in a place like my town – St. Albert, Alberta – for library workers to join a union, even though almost everyone will try to talk them out of it. “It was the library workers who were making politicians account for their actions,” Ms. O’Reilly said.

Right now, I don’t think there’s more than one or two members of our city council who truly view our library as an important public service. And we may soon have a civic government here that’s as bad in its own way as the one run by the Ford Bros.

This isn’t just true in St. Albert, of course.

If that happens, library workers need to be part of a union to protect themselves. The rest of us need them to be part of a union to help us protect the most popular – and the most vulnerable – public service in our communities.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments to: Why libraries – and library users – need their librarians and other library workers to be union members

  1. jerrymacgp

    November 14th, 2014

    Far too much importance is attached to the position of Mayor, IMHO. In most Canadian cities, the Mayor is just one vote on city council, carrying no more weight than the vote of any other council member. The only distinctions are that the Mayor chairs the council meetings, and in cities with a ward system, the Mayor is the only councillor with a city-wide, at-large mandate; in cities without a ward system (Grande Prairie is one example), where all councillors are elected at large, the Mayor does not even have that distinction.

    Yes, Rob Ford was a national embarrassment as Mayor of our largest city, and before that was a more local embarrassment to the city of Toronto and its environs. But imagine with horror how much worse the damage could have been, had Toronto had a “strong mayor” system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayor–council_government), as has been advocated by some civic politics pundits.

    Reply
  2. pogo

    November 14th, 2014

    Please sir, I want some more…

    Reply
  3. Jim Clarke

    November 14th, 2014

    Nit-picking from Toronto again … Doug Ford is actually older than Rob, by two years.

    May you be right, however, about both Fords’ impending vanishing from history.

    Reply
    • November 14th, 2014

      Mr. Clark: As always, I am grateful for your nitpicking and that of readers like you. You may not keep me honest, but at least you keep me accurate. I should have checked. But he LOOKS younger, no? Probably because he doesn’t fall into as many drunken stupors. The error has been corrected.

      Reply
      • Jim Clarke

        November 14th, 2014

        I’ve always been blinded to DF’s possible youngishness by my impression that he’s just plain evil. (I’ve self-edited that to make it less likely to look libellous. Feel free to delete my comment if you need to.)

        As to jerrymacgp’s “horror”: yes, me too, exactly. And it’s all made worse by the four-year municipal term that came in for Ontario just eight years ago. Most of the country — you too, I think? — is in the same boat: after electing some random dingbat, we’re stuck with him for such a long time. Is the cure party politics? Vancouver does seem safer from our recent insanity.

        Reply
  4. jack

    November 15th, 2014

    I am now stopping going to my library after you posted that their workers have no choice in joining a union. Democracy, freedom of association first. Not big union bosses.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      November 16th, 2014

      Well, Jack have you considered not walking on sidewalks or driving on public roads built by union workers? If not, maybe it’s not too late for you to stop drinking fresh water, using electricity, or other utilities brought to you by hardworking union labour.

      Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      November 17th, 2014

      @jack: “Big union bosses”? The “bosses” of most Canadian unions are their rank and file membership. Unions are among the most democratic organizations in the nation. “Big union bosses” is just a right-wing anti-union trope that has no basis in reality.

      As for freedom of association, most Canadian unions work under the Rand formula, in which union membership is optional, but paying dues, which pay for the work the union does on behalf of all the workers represented, members or not, is mandatory. And workers get to vote on whether they choose to join a union, and can also vote to “unjoin” (decertify) if they choose to, although very few do so.

      Reply
  5. Jack

    November 17th, 2014

    “Hard working union labour”. Now there’s an oxymoron for you.

    Reply
    • November 17th, 2014

      Ah, Jack, you’re sweet! And to think I once went 11 years without taking a sick day, a union member and activist every minute of it. No one ever complained about my productivity, either, regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn. My own experience in both unionized and non-union workplaces is that the f**k-offs and deadbeats are the ones who almost inevitably take a stridently anti-union line, the better to keep management on side notwithstanding their obvious deficiencies of employees. Until they get in trouble anyway, that is. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that “Jack” is an example of just such a worker. We’ll never know for sure, of course, because he hides behind anonymity, like most Internet trolls of his ilk. C’mon up to the House (o’ Labour), big guy! DJC

      Reply

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