Essex County library workers are hoping for movement at the bargaining table after receiving confirmation from its library board more negotiations were being planned.
Fifty-eight library workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), have been on strike for more than four months over a contract offer attempting to overhaul sick leave and short-term disability entitlements for members.
Lori Wightman, unit chair for CUPE 2974.1, said the Essex County Library Board confirmed at its meeting last Wednesday it would participate in more negotiations.
“They didn’t have dates, but they did say that they’d be coming back to the table,” she said.
“Hopefully, they’ll come to the table with some kind of movement so we can resolve it.”
Wightman and her fellow unit members went on strike June 25, closing all 14 Essex County library branches. An impasse in negotiations was reached when the library board refused to budge on changes it wanted to sick leave and the workers’ short-term disability plan. If imposed, the plan will ultimately increase sick leave costs to the county, while reducing worker entitlements.
According to the board, it is concerned with the amount of accumulated sick days for library workers, which it says averages 260 days per employee. It has proposed cutting the amount of annual sick days workers are entitled to from 18 to 8.5, paying out unused days at the end of the year.
This has been dismissed as ridiculous by the union because under the expired contract, workers were never been paid out for accumulated sick days, despite being able to bank them.
“It’s never been an issue because we don’t as a group use very much of our sick days,” Wightman said.
“Right now, we don’t get paid out. If we don’t use our sick time, it just goes in a bank. When we retire, it just goes away. They’ve agreed that librarians don’t use their sick time, so they’re pretty much guaranteeing [under the proposed plan] that every year they’ll be paying us out our sick time,” she said.
“That’s going to cost more then if they were just to leave it alone.”
Moving the workers’ short-term disability plan to a third-party provider is the other main issue of contention.
“We’ve given 10 counter proposals,” Wightman said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve moved, we’ve bent… more than enough [and] we’ve addressed all of their concerns.
“What it boils down to is that they want to change the sick-time for other groups in the county, and they’re just using us for that end,” she said.
Fred Hahn, CUPE Ontario president, said the library board’s relentless stance around sick leave and short-term disability in this strike reflected a wider endeavour by employers to target points in collective agreements deemed to have the most severe influence on overall job security.
“In the last number of years, we’ve seen a coordinated effort by employers as a result of some advice from their legal firms…about things they should do in terms of collective bargaining.
CUPE represents 60,000 municipal workers in Ontario.
“Sick-leave has been of focus, things like hours of work has been of focus, all things that help to make sure the jobs are stable and less precarious,” Hahn said.
The outcome of what happens with this Essex library worker group, who are mostly women and part-time employees, will affect other county workers at the bargaining table – as has been the case in other labour disputes, Hahn said.
Municipal workers in the township of Bonfield in northern Ontario faced a similar situation in 2013 after the local council attempted to impose a workers’ contract with wide-ranging concessions on the 16-person municipal workforce.
The small unit, also represented by CUPE, went on strike for 10 months, during which five employees were also fired.
“In the end, they were successful in convincing this employer to take these concessions off the table, and to resume their jobs,” Hahn said.
“It took a very long struggle there. I think what’s happening in Essex is that there was an assumption that a relatively small unit, 58 members, most of them women, many of them part-time, would be most unlikely to take on a fight for their rights,” he said. “I think the employer was deeply mistaken with that assumption.”
Hahn also pointed to the ramifications of the passage of Bill 115, the ‘Putting the students first’ act by the Ontario legislature in 2012, as an example of how employers in the province managed to influence collective bargaining outcomes through forcefully changing contracts in the education sector.
The legislation, which was found to be unconstitutional in April this year by the province’s Superior Court, deemed open all collective agreements, interfered with the right to strike and unanimously removed sick leave provisions from contracts.
Hahn noted that although these changes were not achieved through the collective bargaining process, it set some precedent about what could be achieved at the bargaining table. “While we have been successful in saying that passage of that legislation was a violation of people’s rights, the court has reserved on remedy and we are on remedy discussion with government and it is unlikely that we’ll be able to unscramble the egg.”
“A new sick-leave plan has been put into place and there are provisions of our plan that we tried to bargain to make better for people,” he said. “It becomes a problem because it creates a sense that this [sick leave] is a bit of a target.”