Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library Strike

The Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library strike lasted almost two months, from October 1 – November 26, 1984.

The 400 workers at the library were represented by three CUPE locals: Local 1582, library assistants (300 + members), Local 1806, librarians (60+ members) and Local 2758, maintenance staff (20+ members). Over 90% of the workers were women.

The strike centred on library management’s demand that the employees accept 104 concessions from their collective agreements. Workers voted overwhelmingly to strike and the unions’ leadership took the position that they would not strike to stand still, but rather would roll back the concessions and make gains. Among the gains that the locals were aiming for was a guarantee that women returning from maternity leave would come back to their own jobs, making adoption leave accessible to both partners, and paid maternity leave.

It was widely seen as a test case strike. Municipal employers assumed that the female-dominated workforce at the library would not be tough enough to withstand a strike and that they would set the stage for concessions from other municipal workers. They were wrong. In the end, the unions agreed to several small concessions in exchange for major improvements, including limited time on, and frequent breaks from, (VDTs) computer work; adoption leave; and prorated benefits for part-time employees. The chief librarian was fired at the conclusion of the strike.

The leadership of the three library bargaining units understood from the outset that we would have to make noise and be creative on the picket line in order to attract attention, win support, and build pressure on the politicians responsible for running the library.

Over 60 people were involved directly on the strike committee. In addition to the usual duties, the strike committee produced a daily strike bulletin, fund-raised energetically, and even hatched a Catholics’ committee to speak up about the Chair of the Library Board, a prominent Catholic, for immorally attacking workers’ rights. CUPE 1582 committed to doubling strike pay provided by the national union – to $50 a week instead of $25 – and paid ongoing child-care costs so members would not lose their child-care spaces.

We also organized fun days on the picket lines, always contacting the media. For example, on Halloween, members dressed as the ghost of contracts past. We had solidarity pickets weekly: these included a women’s solidarity picket recognizing the make-up of the workforce and the issues on the table, an arts and letters picket acknowledging the work of the Music and Fine Arts departments, and a multilingual picket in support of the Languages Department. The multilingual picket slogan was “In any language this contract stinks.”

While on the picket line, library workers collected names from supportive members of the public and staff and the bindery department organized and bound these petitions into The Big Book of Public Support to present to Metro Council. There was even a library workers choir.

The strike was a radicalizing and transformative experience for many of us. Women stepped up as union activists and leaders in ways they had never expected for themselves. For example, it was one woman’s habit to leave work early to get home to prepare dinner for her husband and children. Several days after the strike began, not only was she doing more than the required 4 hours daily picket duty, but she was staying into the early evening. When asked about her family, she said, “Oh, I told them at the beginning that I was on strike, and they would have to look after themselves for the duration.”

Solidarity remained strong throughout the job action. On November 26th, the Presidents and leaders of the bargaining committees for all three CUPE locals marked the successful conclusion of their two-month strike and rallied with the members before going back into work.

Sue Genge