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Vancouver's Library Strike: Women's Pay on the Line

Men get nearly $6 more hourly for similar work, says union.

Tom Sandborn 20 Aug

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee, with a focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Picketing librarians at VPL.

Vancouver city librarians say a key reason they're still on the picket line is a sexist divide in pay rates. Hourly pay for library jobs filled mostly by women start at nearly $6 less than jobs of equal value that happen to be filled by a majority of men, a study shows.

The 17.5 per cent raise over five years the city is now offering is only part of what the union is fighting for, they said.

Spokespeople for CUPE 391, the local that represents city librarians, told The Tyee on Thursday night that they were encouraged that their employer had agreed to meet for negotiations on Friday, Aug. 17, but were cautious about how much progress they could make. They said that although the city's press release announcing the new negotiations indicated a willingness "to negotiate wage adjustments as a means of addressing wage issues raised by library staff," to date the city negotiators have refused to discuss any of the local's four key bargaining demands: pay equity, improvements for part-time workers, job security and general benefit improvements.

Three weeks into the strike, they say the city's latest offer falls short of others already settled in the Lower Mainland, and includes a proposal to add a new, low-wage job classification that would hire workers at reduced wages to do work currently done by library assistants.

"Pay equity is a human rights issue," said Laura Safarian, a librarian at VPL's downtown main branch, and a member of her local's bargaining committee.

"Canada has signed on to international agreements that recognize the human rights implications of gender bias in wages. This statement from the city, awkward as it is, represents the first time we've seen any recognition at all of the issue from the employer. We have made significant compromises in our negotiations already, including a reduction in the special wage adjustment we're asking for, for all professional librarians," Safarian added.

Gender pay gap persists

Research available on the Local 391 website shows that gender-based pay differentials put library workers far behind male city workers doing work of equal value. Titled "Overdue: Pay Equity for Library Workers," the paper compares hourly wages for an entry-level library assistant (usually a woman, as the VPL workforce is 65 per cent female) with entry-level labourers (a job category that has traditionally been filled by men). The library assistant starts at $15.31 and hour, while the labourer starts at $21.08 an hour.

Entry-level wages for library workers, the research shows, can leave them well below the Stats Canada low-income cut-off line if they are trying to raise a family as single moms, as many are. An applicant for the library assistant position must have completed Grade 12, while to apply successfully for the city labourer position, you only need to have completed Grade 10.

A further difference that costs women workers money is that the male labourer is at the top of his pay grade the day he begins work, while the library assistant has to wait through three years of staged increments before she tops out in her grade, at which point she is still making more than two dollars an hour less than the labourer. One of CUPE 391's bargaining demands would see the number of such staged increments in wages within each pay grade reduced from five to three for library workers, thus bringing them to the top wage within a pay grade sooner.

"If you compare average wages for Canadians working full time all year, women only make 71 per cent of what men make," says SFU prof and pay-equity expert Marjorie Griffin-Cohen. "Pay equity issues are particularly important for unions in B.C., which is one of the only remaining Canadian jurisdictions that does not have legislation in place to enforce pay equity. What we need in B.C. is legislation like that in Ontario, which covers both the public and private sectors, but for now, it depends on unions. The women's movement and trade unions have been crucial in making advances on this issue for women. They have lobbied for appropriate legislation and negotiated wages that reduce gender imbalances. We are, unfortunately, far behind on this in B.C."

Chief librarian: issue 'notoriously difficult'

"In Toronto," says CUPE's Safarian, "an entry-level librarian makes $7 an hour more than someone doing the same work in Vancouver. That just shows the impact of pay equity legislation. For now, we need some real movement on pay equity in our new contract, and a gender-neutral, point-weighted job evaluation mechanism is absolutely crucial."

"One of the members of the classification committee called me tonight," Local 391 president Alex Youngberg told the Tyee by phone on Thursday night. "He told me that everyone on the picket line is 100 per cent behind our pay-equity demands. Members tell me that getting the job evaluation plan in place is our number one priority."

Paul Whitney, the VPL's chief librarian, told The Tyee on Friday morning that the library was reluctant to agree to the union's proposed job evaluation mechanism. He pointed out what he sees as progress made on wage disputes under the library's existing classification committee system, and calls job evaluation "notoriously difficult."

"The classification committee works just fine, for the employer," said Local 391 Vice President Ed Dickson, "but we're not happy with it. Mr. Whitney is dead wrong. Even if the classification system was working properly, and it isn't, it wouldn't address the long-established gender-related salary disparities. Other libraries in the region are getting a job evaluation system. This is clearly not a revolutionary demand.

"Our proposals represent a very low-level starting point," Dickson added. "Just an attempt to actually establish how bad the inequality is and set aside a modest two per cent of payroll in the first year and then one per cent annually in the last four years of the contract to begin fixing the problem. The employer seems to be unwilling to address 30 years of inequality."

Regina's effort

Even if the union wins a job evaluation mechanism in this contract, actual changes to address pay equity may still be years away. The Regina Public Library, for example, has been working on pay equity issues now for over four years, Human Relations Manager Al Kozachuk told The Tyee, and only now has a committee developed an agreement on a gender-neutral job evaluation process. To date, the multi-year process has not resulted in a single change of pay for any Regina library worker, but Kozachuck says that concrete changes may be coming this fall.

Union negotiators told The Tyee at the end of the day Friday that the afternoon's discussions with their employer had not been enormously productive.

"We know that compromise is part of bargaining," said Safarian, whose 900 fellow library workers are on strike for the first time in 77 years. "It's high time the city started making some compromises too. I really wonder how those men bargaining for the employer can go home and explain to their daughters the things they are doing to block pay equity."

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