Disrupt and Transform: 2017 CUPE Ontario Library Workers Conference

The 2017 CUPE Ontario Library Workers Conference was a very special event for the Mississauga Library Workers Union. Over the course of two days, our 2016 strike and the great gains we made for our members were celebrated from the podium again and again. In the same way, the tremendous perseverance and solidarity shown by the Essex County Library Workers — on strike for a stunning eight months — were noted, applauded, cheered, and celebrated, again and again. For the 1989 executive board, it was a joyous event.

The theme of this year’s conference was Disrupt and Transform — which is exactly what our strikes did. They transformed our union, our relationship with our employer, and ourselves.

Library Warriors!

We were welcomed by CUPE Ontario Library Chair Maureen O’Reilly, who is president of Local 4948, Toronto Public Library Workers, and by Chad Goebel, Vice President of Windsor District CUPE Council. Amanda Meloche, President of the Windsor Public Library Workers Union, noted: “It’s not just Essex and Mississauga that have Library Warriors. We’re all Library Warriors!” Very true!

Keynote speaker Desmond Cole began by talking about his love for libraries, and how, when he was growing up, the local library was his second home. He remembers carrying a book bag, and his mother’s rule that he could borrow as many books as fit in the bag; every week the bag would be overflowing. For many conference participants, this was the first time they had heard Desmond speak, and most were entranced. He’s a truly engaging speaker with a powerful message.

Desmond has been instrumental in shining a light on racism in Canada, especially racist policing practices. He said he was touched and very proud that his article in Toronto Life magazine — The Skin I’m In — was featured in our conference book.

Desmond talked about how collective action can have a direct impact — how it changes our lives and our society. Recently Desmond called a ministry office to urge them to stop a deportation. A family was being broken up, and a woman, eight months pregnant, was being forced to risk her health by flying. The ministry representative said to Desmond, “What makes you think you speak for Canadians?” Within minutes, Desmond was on Twitter, reaching out to the community, asking supporters — for whom he does speak — to call the ministry. Result: the woman was not deported. The family remained intact. When we are organized and mobilized, we can disrupt the status quo, and transform the world.
The 1989 Executive Board at the end of the CUPE Ontario Library Workers Conference. 

Lori Wightman, head of the Essex County Library Workers, and I, as president of CUPE 1989, each made presentations about our locals’ strikes.

Lori talked about the huge community support their union built, how they faced down the Essex Council, and how the devious, union-busting tactics of the Council will be remembered at election time. It was no surprise, later in the conference, when Lori was elected to the CUPE Ontario Library Workers Committee. I look forward to working with her!

I talked about how we built member engagement, strengthened our labour-management meetings, and took a new approach at the bargaining table. These factors, working together synergistically, paved the way for our successful strike.

I also listed the great gains we made. There are the tangible gains, like bringing our pages from slightly more than minimum wage to $15/hour in one leap and preventing our part-timers from being forced to work every Saturday. And there are many intangible gains, such as the strength and solidarity we built, and the confidence and courage our members gained when they found their voices, stood up, and fought back.

We also screened our awesome strike video! If you’ve never seen it — or if you haven’t seen it in a while — why not watch it now?

Chris Taylor, President of Unifor Local 200, talked about the historic Windsor Ford Strike of 1945, which led directly to the Rand Formula. Chris emphasized — he warned us — about the so-called “Right to Work” legislation that has spread through the United States, leaving depressed wages and increased poverty in its wake.

Representing the members of Locals 1989 and 2974, we were honoured onstage.

If Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservative Party had won the last provincial election, our ability to run our unions could have been destroyed. Hudak was defeated through the mobilization of the Canadian labour movement. Chris’ talk was an excellent reminder that we must always be vigilant. Our rights don’t protect themselves.

Local reports are always a highlight of the conference. Hearing about the struggles and successes of other library unions renews our commitment and bolsters our strength. We are all dealing with the same issues, but our contracts vary widely. By sharing information, we all grow stronger at the bargaining table.

It was my great honour to introduce Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario. I recalled Fred’s tireless support during our strike, and how he helped bring the City of Mississauga back to the bargaining table, while still respecting our local’s autonomy and supporting our demands. Fred, I said, is the embodiment of why we call each other brother and sister.

A little library humour — and a great honour.

Fred’s talk was typically moving. He talked about libraries as collectives — people working together to bring our shared, public resources to people who need them. He reminded us of the silver linings of a strike — the bonds it creates, and yes, the fun we had! And he noted that the record number of strikes throughout Ontario in the past year made him proud. That’s how you know Fred is a true unionist.

Fred reminded us that there’s nothing wrong with being aggressive when defending the rights of our members: when you’re on the right side of the question, you are right to keep fighting!

Both Fred and Candace Rennick, Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario, emphasized the need for solidarity with other striking locals. Right now, workers from a Children’s Aid Society are locked out by their employer, and the members of the Canadian Hearing Society workers’ union are fighting harsh concessions, after being without a contract for four long years. I join Fred and Candace in urging you to support these locals however you can: there’s information here.

At one point during the Conference, members from the Mississauga and Essex County libraries were called on stage to be honoured. In a bit of library humour, Lori Wightman and I were given some gifts, including a Wonder Woman action figure and a play crown. It was very funny — and very touching.

The CUPE 1989 Executive Board thanks our members for giving us the opportunity to attend this excellent conference. We know our union will benefit from it in many ways.

— submitted by Laura Kaminker