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Inside workers set to vote on strike mandate

Toronto Public Library workers march outside Toronto City Hall on March 19, 2012, after talks with the city stalled on the weekend.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Although the Toronto Public Library and its workers are prepared to talk again, the first labour disruption of Rob Ford's mayoralty has already raised the stakes for another union, the city's largest, as it seeks a strike mandate of its own.

More than 23,000 inside workers are eligible to cast ballots on Tuesday, and they'll be wrestling with the same issue that drove library workers to the picket lines: job security in the Ford era.

Mr. Ford and his deputy mayor have made it clear they want to weaken so-called "jobs for life" protections for library and inside workers, as they did for outside workers with less than 15 years of seniority in a hard-fought deal reached with CUPE Local 416 in February.

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"I don't see how they can expect us to give them more than we gave 416," deputy mayor Doug Holyday said. "They want it so that there is no contracting out, which would give job security not just to permanent employees but to all, even temporary and part-time people. No one in the real world does that. Just how far can they take such a matter?"

Mr. Holyday was speaking specifically about CUPE Local 79 – whose workers will be in a legal strike or lockout position at 12:01 a.m. Saturday – but job security is also at the centre of the library dispute.

"The [Toronto Public Library]board is still seeking to gut job security so that more than half of our membership is vulnerable to job loss, making it easier for the city to close branches in the next budget," Maureen O'Reilly, president of CUPE Local 4948, told hundreds of striking library workers at a rally at Nathan Phillips Square on Monday.

Toronto's 2,300 library employees walked off the job on Sunday, shuttering 98 branches and halting all but some online library services. The strike is the first in the amalgamated library's history.

Both sides in the dispute have kept open their negotiating rooms at the Westin Prince Hotel on York Mills Road, where marathon talks took place on the weekend.

A CUPE spokesman said the union was ready to talk again on Monday night, but he couldn't promise a meeting would happen.

Councillor Paul Ainslie, chair of the library board, said he was shocked the union opted to strike. He said he figured, "we'd all reach our merry compromise and life would go on because they're librarians. They're not radical."

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Toronto's cherished public library system wasn't expected to be the first battleground in the Ford administration's long-awaited clash with organized labour.

Public outpouring of love for libraries helped fend off deep cuts to the system last year, and librarians tend to enjoy broader support than the garbage collectors and other municipal workers who walked off the job for 39 days in 2009.

"I would bet dollars to doughnuts they [the Ford administration]were expecting the brawl to be with 416," said Cim Nunn, a CUPE spokesman. "I think, frankly, what they would have preferred was that we not jump out of sequence."

In the past, the library union has settled after 416 and 79 reached deals. This time, the library union asked the province for a "no-board" report that put its deadline ahead of that of the inside workers.

Mr. Ainslie said he doesn't believe putting librarians on the picket line will make a strike any more palatable to Torontonians.

"I think there is a big difference between people's love of libraries and their love of library unions," he said.

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Right now, all permanent full- and part-time library workers are protected from losing their posts to privatization, new technology or layoffs. In the case of Local 79, the clause applies only to permanent, full-time staff, a CUPE spokeswoman confirmed.

If the city tried to shutter branches, it would be obligated to find the displaced workers comparable jobs at other libraries, negating the savings.

But Mr. Ainslie insisted again on Monday that management has no intention of laying off workers or closing branches. The board passed a motion barring branch closings last fall.

Asked why the board is seeking to weaken the "jobs for life" clause if it isn't planning to lay off workers or close libraries, Mr. Ainslie would only say the city is trying to apply the 416 "template" to all of its workers. But he added that the library board had already reduced the threshold to below the 15-year cutoff that applied to Local 416.

With a report from Elizabeth Church

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