Beyond the Bargaining Table: Women’s Exploitation and the TPL Workers’ Union

by Shafiqullah Aziz and Thomas Saczkowski

The recent ratification of a four-year collective agreement with CUPE 416, which represents the cities outside workers, has resulted in less job security and benefits, and ultimately a reduction in public services. Mayor Rob Ford declared that the 416 agreement is “an absolutely fantastic day for the taxpayers” but really it is only a fantastic day for the upper classes that benefit from cuts to public services, and not the working class that are using or employed by these services. Collective agreements that do not favour workers, is an attack on all people of Toronto, because a lack of support for the employees that deliver services results in a decline in services in general. Additionally, by cutting library services, a sector that predominantly consists of female employees, these cuts unequally impact women who are employed by the city, as it reduces the already low amount of unionized female city employees, and increases the precariousness of the remaining women’s employment standards. The attempts by the bourgeois City of Toronto government to decrease salaries and benefits and increase the precarity of employment is evident in the continuing negotiations between the Toronto Public Library Workers Union CUPE Local 4948 and the Toronto Public Library Board.

This past week Union 4948 president, Maureen O’Reilly announced that the union filed for a no-board report. A no-board report is a common step in the labour negotiation process, where one party sends a request to the Ministry of Labour that negotiations have not produced an agreement. Once the Ministry of Labour responds on March 1st, there will be a 17-day countdown until the workers can either be locked out or go on strike. The move to file a no-board request came a day after 91% of the union members of local 4948 voted in favour of a strike. The almost unanimous decision to have a strike represents the strong solidarity of the workers in 4948 to ratify an agreement that benefits future and present workers in the union and also defends public services.

The Toronto Library Workers Union Local 4948 operates the most utilized public library system in the world. Yet, contrary to the high demand for services, the potential of a collective agreement in favour of the workers and the people of Toronto is unlikely. The Ford administration in the past year has been ardently focused on cutting services to the public library system. Although many cuts to libraries were avoided due to support by the people of Toronto, 107 positions were still lost which resulted in a 17% cut to staff. These cuts were realized even though there was a 29% increase in people using library services in 2011. The outcome of the agreement between the city and CUPE 416 has currently set a precedent for union negotiations in Toronto; Cim Nunn of CUPE stated “that the city is going to try to use the agreement for 416 as a guideline, which will not benefit unions with different requirements and demands”. The Library Workers union has different demands as a union whose 2,300 members are 75% female and a majority are part-time workers. Consequently, the union will be bargaining for demands in terms of wage equity, maternity leave, and benefits for precariously employed workers.

Since the 2008 economic recession the various levels of government have used austerity measures to get the working class to pay for the capitalist crisis. In further efforts to create a larger body of exploitable labour, the government is trying to break down unions and further privatize public services. Increasing cuts means increasing privatization; working class people of Toronto will only have to pay more for fewer services, leading to increasing accumulation of profits for the wealthy. Particularly within this stage of capitalism, women are oppressed and exploited by institutionalized patriarchy, which puts particular demands on the labour of working class women. Women are more likely to be unjustly fired, have lower salaries than men, and also hold less powerful positions. This has adversely affects the library workers union that consists largely of part time employees, who are predominantly women. The city will try to further increase the inequitable demands on working class women by reducing benefits and job security. This has already been the outcome of the CUPE 416 negotiations, a union that has a much larger membership that is mostly consisted of men.

However, in spite of continuing austerity measures and attacks on working-class women within this city, there is solidarity from the people of Toronto. The people won a victory this past year by stopping many of the cuts to library services that the Ford administration was initiating. Further support will be needed for the library workers because negotiating for a better contract means demanding better public services and a response to austerity measures on working class women. Visit your local library and continue to support working class movements in the city.