Checking Out

Monday Magazine | February 20, 2008
When members of the Writers Guild voted to return to work last week after 100 days of strike action, you could hear the buzz building around the proverbial water cooler. It turns out the red carpet will be unfurled for the 80th Academy Awards after all, and entertainment-starved fans can anticipate new episodes from the CSI franchise in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, closer to home, somewhat less attention is being paid to the labour dispute affecting 286 Greater Victoria Public Library workers, predominately females: workers who have been without a collective agreement for over 400 days—and, as of Sunday, February 17, have been officially locked out.

One of those workers is 46-year-old Olivia Anderson, manager of the Bruce Hutchison and Central Saanich branches. Fresh from a morning on the picket lines, where temperatures hovered around four degrees, Anderson is cool and reasonable, despite the time she’s already invested this day into correcting the “wave of misinformation” circulating about the union’s demands.

“It’s not about the money,” she says. Like her colleagues—90 percent of whom voted in favour of strike action—Anderson insists she’s defending her rights on principle. As far as she’s concerned, library workers have been promised pay equity but the employer is “reneging.”

The facts of the recent labour dispute should be familiar to Monday readers by now, but the story began back in 1992 when library workers along with employees from Victoria City Hall and other municipalities went on strike in order to achieve equal pay for work of equal value. Following a promise on behalf of their employer to establish pay equity by 1994, the library workers became embroiled in successive rounds of negotiation and arbitration.

Sixteen years later “pay equity has been achieved everywhere but the library,” says Ed Seedhouse, president of CUPE local 410.

This situation isn’t unique to Victoria. While the local impact of the labour dispute is emerging on the letters to the editor and op-ed pages, the bigger picture has yet to be addressed: pay equity has been, and continues to be, a contentious issue for library workers and employers across much of Canada—even though pay equity has been part of the Canadian Human Rights Act since 1977.

Few provinces, however, have established pay equity legislation—and B.C. isn’t one of them, which could explain why the province lags behind others in offering library employees equal pay for work of equal value. By contrast, the salary of library workers in Ontario increased by up to 24 percent when pay equity legislation was introduced throughout that province in the 1990s.

Of course, not everyone sees the issue the same way. Ron Brunsdon, the GVPL’s chief negotiator, disputes the union’s demands for pay equity, charging they are “putting a spin” on the issue to gain support. As far as he’s concerned, pay equity has been achieved within the library according to the plan set out by the same comparison study backed by the union.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it is difficult to separate the issue of pay equity from that of gender-based inequality. Libraries are largely female-dominated workplaces. Eighty-three percent of GVPL’s employees are women; 74 percent when you include part-time and auxiliary workers.

Deb Thomas, president of the British Columbia Library Association, argues in the August-September issue of the BCLA Reporter that “the fight for pay equity and fair wages continues to be hampered with decades-old conceptions about the value of ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work.’”

Seedhouse agrees, but adds it is possible to compare male- and female-dominated workplaces. Job descriptions can be broken down into a series of comparable tasks, and positions—not individuals—can be “scored” according to key factors like the ability to impact the organization or the number of people supervised.

Back in 2000, a joint union-management study used this approach to match library workers with staff in comparable positions at the city, a plan the union maintains was agreed upon in previous versions of the collective agreement—a claim the GVPL’s Brunsdon denies.“That’s the genesis of the conflict,” he says, pointing to the inability of both sides to reach an agreement.

If the plan were to go through, it could significantly influence the income of library workers. Take Anderson, for example. As the branch head of two libraries, she supervises 12 staff. During the course of a typical day, she’ll perform a dizzying range of duties: developing and teaching public internet courses; giving presentations to community organizations; leading new Canadians, young families and business students on library tours; trouble-shooting computer failures; organizing author visits; providing customer service; and ordering new books for the library’s fiction collection.

There are other less-expected responsibilities, like mediating between the homeless or mentally ill patrons who access library services and library users disturbed by their appearance or behaviour. She also spends time reading to people who’ve “forgotten their glasses”—a cover, she suspects, for adult illiteracy.

According to the comparison study mentioned earlier, Anderson’s position would be comparable to that of a senior planner at City Hall. Until pay equity comes into effect, however, Anderson can expect to earn up to $33.66 per hour, while a senior planner can earn as much as $39.59: a difference of $5.93 per hour.

That inequity reaches the highest rungs of the library hierarchy. As an incumbent, GVPL’s current CEO, Barry Holmes, earned 18 percent more than his female predecessor did when she left the position. As far as Anderson is concerned, it’s a strong indicator of gender-based inequality at work. “You can’t tell me Sandra Anderson would have gotten an 18 percent raise if she’d stayed in that position.”

Not all of the issues surrounding fair pay for library workers are related to gender. Environment is also critical: librarians in small communities routinely make less than their urban counterparts, and library workers in academic institutions can earn up to 22 percent more than those working for public libraries. In addition to pay equity, GVPL workers are demanding fair treatment for auxiliary employees, some of whom are long-time employees working equivalent to full-time without any benefits.

Like all labour disputes, the situation at GVPL is complex and the stakes are high. Perhaps the conundrum is best summed up by Thomas. Back in the 1990s, she was responsible for implementing a pay equity agreement she hadn’t negotiated. She knows how difficult it can be for cash-strapped cultural institutions like libraries to implement significant salary increases, especially when their revenue is not growing accordingly.

Here at home, implementing pay equity could cost GVPL as much as $1.8 million annually—if they agreed to the union’s proposal, which they clearly do not. “Do the math,” Brunsdon says. “Over five years that would mean $9 million. And you know where that would have to come from: municipal taxes.”

It’s a hefty sum, but Thomas warns employers—and taxpayers—of the hidden costs associated with stalling. “By choosing not to act, we risk demoralized workers and the loss of bright young people to other more lucrative sectors or professions.”

We also risk losing our public library system and the myriad benefits it provides to our community: a loss we’re just beginning to comprehend. “When they locked out employees,” says Anderson, “they locked out the public.”

It’s something the union tried not to do during its strike action, she says. Internet use and children’s programming were cut back, but the library remained open.

Now the library doors are closed, and the employer has changed the locks. In its defence, the GVPL has placed a 12 percent increase on the table. It’s the same offer, according to Brunsdon, that 10 other CUPE locals have accepted, although the library workers have declined so far.

Anderson fears it could be months before the library reopens, although both sides of the dispute have expressed an eagerness to return to the bargaining table.


Measuring the wage gap

According to CUPE 410, the Greater Victoria Public Library committed to bridging the wage gap between municipal workers and employees in comparable positions within the library: a claim the GVPL’s chief negotiator denies.

Back in 2000, a comparability study carefully “scored” the positions in both workplaces according to the pay equity plan adopted by the City (which had achieved full funding and equal pay for work of equal value by 1994).

The study, which was supported by both union and management, assessed each job on the basis of skills required, levels of effort and responsibility and working conditions. Across the board, jobs within GVPL were paid considerably less than similar positions at the City of Victoria.

For example, a general labourer collecting money from the City’s parking meters earned $19.83 per hour, while a library page performing comparable work earned only $9.81. At a rate of $10.02 per hour it is one of the most marked discrepancies.

An accounting clerk working at the Conference Centre earned $23.04, in contrast to the GVPL’s accounting clerk, who earned $19.83: a difference of $3.21 per hour.

At the higher end of the scale, the City’s information technology support supervisor earned $37.67 per hour; GVPL’s systems administrator took home $28.76—$8.91 less per hour.


Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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