Boss and union tell different tales

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      The head of the Vancouver library system has claimed that the union representing striking workers has asked for more than 40 percent in wage and benefit increases over a five-year period. Paul Whitney, the city librarian, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that the last offer from Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 391 on August 17 was a "setback" in achieving a resolution to the six-week strike.

      "The impact on our salary and benefit budget over the term of the agreement would increase by in excess of 40 percent," Whitney claimed. "We were pretty significantly taken aback by their last offer. We're still assessing that."

      Alex Youngberg, president of CUPE Local 391, described Whitney's comment as "insane" and "downright outrageous" in a phone interview with the Straight. "He's not giving librarians a very good reputation as far as math goes," she added.

      Youngberg claimed that the union's last offer, including provisions for pay equity, would work out to a 29.5-percent increase in wages and benefits over a nine-year period if the city granted every aspect of the package. She said that the union has "trimmed back" its request for benefits, and is only seeking coverage for eye examinations, laser surgery, and composite dental fillings because of problems associated with mercury fillings.

      She claimed that the city has already saved more than $1.4 million by not paying unionized staff during the strike. That contrasts with only one percent of payroll, or about $200,000 per year, that she said would be allocated for pay equity. In addition, Youngberg emphasized that this $200,000 per year would only be forthcoming if the union could prove that female workers were not being paid the same as male city employees for work of equal value.

      "In Burnaby, their council was actually in favour of them having pay equity and they urged the employer to comply with giving”¦internal equity," she said.

      Whitney said that the union has "talked for specific wage adjustments of an additional 4.5 percent for librarians", as well as "significant improvements for part-timers, including lowering the trigger for benefit eligibility".

      "When you total all of those things up, we're talking about a lot of money," he claimed.

      Whitney sent the Straight a copy of a comparison of entry-level librarian pay rates in nine large Canadian cities. In Toronto, which ranked first, the bottom level for an entry-level librarian in 2007 is $30.84 per hour, compared to $24.41 per hour in Vancouver, which ranked fourth. The other cities on the list are Ottawa ($27.49 per hour), Calgary ($26.23), Winnipeg ($23.95), Montreal ($23.46), Regina ($23.14), Edmonton ($21.32), and Halifax ($20.82).

      Youngberg said that an entry-level library worker is paid $15.31 per hour, whereas the entry-level wage for the city exceeds $20 per hour. "We're a female-dominated workforce," she said. "That's traditional in female-dominated workforces that we're paid less. You see that with the early-childhood care workers."

      Both sides agree that the public is not well served by the shutdown of the library's 22 branches. Whitney said that all services have been suspended, including the library Web page. "We do not have any management staff in our IT [information technology] department," he said. "Whereas it's one thing to leave a Web page up, there are significant issues with respect to backup, with respect to security–we're sort of repelling hacker attacks all the time."

      This means that none of the library's databases are available on-line, including the popular directory of community organizations. In addition, Whitney said that such services as the summer reading club, delivering talking books to people with reading disabilities, business information, and outreach programs are all on hold.

      "Unfortunately, none of them qualify for essential-services designation under the terms of the legislation," he said.

      Todd Wong, a 30-year employee, told the Straight in a phone interview that the closure of the library will mean that fewer Vancouver residents will learn about the 100th anniversary of the anti-Asian riots in Vancouver in September. (See page 15 for more information.) He said that people can't check e-mail at the library and they don't have access to ESL programs in many of the branches.

      "At the end of July, I noticed that the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra had to cancel one of their programs," Wong said. "They do incredible work."

      Wong, a community and cultural activist, said public librarians are paid less than their counterparts in the corporate and academic sectors, adding that he can't understand why the City won't agree to mediation. "Obviously, there seems to be a hidden agenda," Wong claimed.

      "Library Square was conceived of being a cultural heart of the city," he added. "It seems like the City management is trying to prolong the strike."

      Whitney said the union "booked out of mediation" in July when it served strike notice. "The City is our primary funder, so it's logical we would be consulting closely with them on the movements in our negotiations," he said. "And the issue around mediation, I'm assuming, would be discussed in the context of all three city locals."