Tuesday March 1, 2022 | VANCOUVER ISLAND, BC [Updated 8:05 pm]
Insights by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends
Picketing at Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) branches could start on Thursday March 3 (at 8 am), with client and patron service impacts. That can be averted at any moment, according to the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU). The union has 90 days to exercise its right to strike.
In mid-February, 42 of the 48 librarians covered by the collective agreement (95 per cent) voted in favour of job action. They are responsible for library operations at 39 branches across Vancouver Island from parts of Greater Victoria to Port Hardy including the Gulf Islands, Haida Gwaii and Bella Coola.
As many as 401 VIRL library workers who are CUPE members would not cross a BCGEU picket line. The strike possibility was announced by VIRL yesterday, February 28.
The library system is governed by a board of trustees who, in accordance with B.C.’s Library Act, is made up of elected representatives from 28 member municipalities and 10 regional districts.
Now in their 86th year, VIRL says it provides “critical and accountable services and resources to communities throughout the region”.
Trustees can take the lead:
“Trustees are responsible for guiding library operations and that includes hiring the staff who are at the table with our members bargaining this contract,” says BCGEU President Stephanie Smith.
“These trustees are also responsible to the people who elected them. It’s high time they got involved to help prevent the withdrawal of library services,” says Smith, who says Local 702 is looking for a “fair collective agreement”. Job action is a last resort, says Smith.
Generally speaking, many boards and councils in BC have, over the years, become quite corporatized, relying on staff and executive management to fulfill many of the roles that local politicians used to dig into it.
VIRL Chair is Gaby Wickstrom, who is on Town of Port MacNeill council. Vice-chair is Erin Hemmens (City of Nanaimo council). Both were appointed to the VIRL board in 2019.
From this west side of the island, VIRL reps include Jeff Bateman (Sooke, since 2019) and Duncan McMaster (Tofino, 2019).
One of the most senior VIRL board members is Mike Hicks (CRD / Juan de Fuca) who has held the spot since 2009; it was Hicks who figured out a way for Sooke to get their new library by leading the way for use of Lot A on Wadams Way (that new branch has only recently opened, after more than 10 years in the making).
From the Cowichan area of south Vancouver Island, VIRL board members include Lorna Vomacka (Town of Lake Cowichan, since 2021), Rosalie Sawrie (North Cowichan, 2022), Mike Wilson (Cowichan Valley Regional District, 2022). The Town of Sidney VIRL rep is Peter Wainwright (2021).
Strike action can look very different depending on the situation. It can include an overtime ban, work-to-rule, rotating closures or full strikes, says BCGEU. So far, VIRL has not said how they might adapt to any of these types of actions.
Library patrons might, therefore, experience a range of impacts including no access to the library interior or online. That would mean limited or no access to collections (books, audio, etc) or to use of public computer stations that so many library patrons rely upon at no cost.
BCGEU represents the librarians in Local 702 who are calling on elected representatives serving on local councils and regional districts on Vancouver Island to prevent this from happening. “Trustees have a role to play in preventing job action and maintaining library services for their communities, says BCGEU President Stephanie Smith.
VIRL is governed by a board of trustees made up of elected representatives from 28 member municipalities and 10 regional districts.
BCGEU represents more than 82,000 members who work in every sector of the economy and live in every community across the province including the 48 librarians who work for the Vancouver Island Regional Library.
Valuable support during COVID:
Today Smith told Island Social Trends today that BCGEU librarian members “learned their worth” as to the services they provide in communities, much of which has had far-reaching positive impact.
In some respects these library professionals became an arm of the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction as they worked long and hard to assist library patrons with applications for various pandemic supports including CERB and CEWS. That was particularly so in the first year of the pandemic in 2020, and continued into 2021.
“Librarians don’t want job action,” says Smith, but says the employees have ultimately found themselves feeling disrespected. “What they want is a fair collective agreement that recognizes the value of their work to the communities they serve, protects their wages from sky-rocketing inflation, and gives them the safe, healthy workplaces they deserve. What they’ve gotten from their employer so far is unnecessary delays and proposals that can only be described as disrespectful. It’s unacceptable.”
Smith notes that there is a 40-year high in the rate of inflation. She insists that wages need to keep up with that, considering “how expensive it is to live in BC”, she told Island Social Trends today.
“They are willing to fight. They know their worth,” the BCGEU president said about Local 702 librarians today.
Of their $31 million annual budget, VIRL spends 65% on wages and benefits. Of the full operating budget, 95% are fixed costs. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.
VIRL revenues rely on levies by towns and municipalities from their municipal tax base (which is largely from residential property taxes). Even if those were to go up, it would take time (a year or more) to cycle through the municipal tax cycles.
David Carson, VIRL Director of Corporate Communications and Strategic Initiatives, says: “While the specific reasons for the strike have yet to be confirmed, the two sides reached an impasse on the subject of wages. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
Role of libraries:
The role of libraries has been changing over the past decade or more. “They are one of the last places” that offers services for free, including use of computers and support for people who are in many cases without resource for other types of support.
It seems that now the key personnel to enable such a noble calling for libraries — i.e. professional librarians — are catching up to being recognized for their contribution which helps stabilize individuals, families and communities.
“Libraries are a really important place for people who are looking for support,” Smith said today. During the pandemic many of those people “were in crisis” and needing to access government support. That sector of the VIRL clientele was in reality the under-served cohort of the broader community, especially in smaller and more remote towns in which VIRL branches are located.
Violence on the job:
In addition to wages not keeping up with inflation, BCGEU says the VIRL librarians have been experiencing “ongoing occupational health and safety issues including workplace violence and mental health impacts”, which she labels as “disrespectful working conditions”.
“The employer has minimized proposals to address workplace violence,” says Smith.
The previous collective agreement between the VIRL and BC General Employees’ Union Local 702 expired on December 31, 2020 and the two sides have been bargaining since September 2021.
The delay in bargaining “was entirely on the side of the employer”, Smith said today, even though VIRL’s Director of Corporate Communications and Strategic Initiatives says that VIRL responded promptly in the summer of 2021 to become involved in negotiations (VIRL says that they received notice on July 7, 2021 from the Union to commence bargaining, which began on September 24, 2021).
Last month — in mid-February 2022, the 48 librarians covered by the collective agreement voted 95 percent in favour of job action to back their proposals after mediation between the two parties in January failed to produce an agreement. Smith says that strike votes require only 50 percent plus one (a simple majority) to pass.
Vancouver Island librarians going on strike (February 28, 2022)
New VIRL executive director now 4-months-in (Jan 2, 2022)
VIRL operational vaccination policy kicks in Feb 11 (Jan 2, 2022)