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Why libraries -- and library users -- need librarians and other library workers to be union members

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Maureen O'Reilly

Doug Ford? Doug Ford? Who is Doug Ford again?

I think he's Rob Ford’s brother?

OK. Who is Rob Ford?

Didn't I say back in the summer of 2011 that Margaret Atwood -- and, by contrast, we all know who Atwood is -- was the best thing that ever happened to Doug Ford?

Ford, in case you've forgotten already, was the former Toronto city councillor and sometime candidate for mayor of that city, elder brother of the frequently stupefied and nationally embarrassing mayor of the same last name.

Back in 2011, when the Ford Bros. were in the midst of their campaign to close public libraries, the renowned Canadian author Atwood gave Ford a good public spanking on Twitter -- and about a quarter million people Tweeted in their support.

Ford should be grateful, I suggested in a blog post at the time. "When the bug spray has settled down after the next Toronto municipal election, history will likely not have much to say about you. Atwood, on the other hand, is someone whom history will remember. But a public slapdown by Atwood means that at least you might get a mention in a good book or something of the sort that would be kept in a library."

Well, 18 days have passed since the Toronto civic election, and as predicted the elder Mr. Ford is pretty well forgotten -- likely only to be remembered as a footnote in a book about Atwood.

But if Atwood turned out to have done a back-handed favour of sorts for him, his worst nightmare was Maureen O’Reilly, the president of the library staff union local at the Toronto Public Library, who played a central role in the brilliant campaign to save Toronto's library system from the depredations of the crude neo-conservatism the Fords represented and gravely wounded the Fords in the process.

It's probably too much to say O’Reilly and the library workers deserve credit for finishing off Ford Nation's misrule at Toronto City Hall -- no, the Fords pretty much accomplished that by themselves -- but as President of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, CUPE Local 4948, she certainly did as much harm to their chances as she did good for the future of libraries in Canada's largest city.

The union's clever campaign, which took an image of dowdy Marian-the-Librarian spectacles and turned them into an instantly recognizable symbol of defiance, community and literacy was not just a key factor in turning away the Ford attack on libraries, it was a defence that could only have been organized by unionized library workers.

Unionized, of course, because being part of a union gives working people the protection and resources they need to run a campaign that may be unpopular with library managers and library boards, and is certain to be unpopular with the right-wing municipal politicians who go after libraries because they don't read much themselves, and therefore view the 70-plus per cent of the population that use library services as a "special interest."

That's why people like the Fords -- and their dear friend and mentor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- hate unions so much.

But unionized librarians and library workers are the best defenders of libraries, O'Reilly told me at a conference we both attended in Toronto last weekend, because other people who should be effective defenders tend not to be, for a variety of reasons.

Library managers, and library board members too, are not as good at advocating for library services "because they tend to be team players," she told me -- and the team they're playing for is the city council team. Often, they have ambitions themselves to be on council.

Library managers, she argued, are more vulnerable to discipline by senior managers and politicians, whereas "union membership gives you a platform, and a budget, to fight for library services."

You can make a strong argument that even by simply looking out for the wellbeing of their own members -- job security, better wages and the rest -- library unions are protecting library services for the public.

"This is because they are resisting the 'dumbing down' of library work," O'Reilly explained. Protecting their own jobs and those of their colleagues -- a charge often thrown at union members as if it were a bad thing -- protects the workers' ability to provide the specialized help with information that is the true heart of library services.

With only their official "friends" -- volunteers, board members, senior managers and the like -- to protect them, she said, library budgets just keep getting trimmed. "It's just the easiest thing to cut, because no one resists."

Unionized library workers in Toronto resisted. The library board hated it. Their managers hated it. Politicians hated it. The Fords hated it with a special passion. But it worked.

Today, thanks to the campaign organized by O'Reilly and her sisters and brothers at the Toronto Public Library, cutting the system is largely off the table and there's even talk of reinvesting in it.

It's still just talk, she warned me, but that's progress just the same.

That's why it’s important in a place like my town -- St. Albert, Alberta -- for library workers to join a union, even though almost everyone will try to talk them out of it. "It was the library workers who were making politicians account for their actions," O'Reilly said.

Right now, I don't think there's more than one or two members of our city council who truly view our library as an important public service. And we may soon have a civic government here that's as bad in its own way as the one run by the Ford Bros.

This isn't just true in St. Albert, of course.

If that happens, library workers need to be part of a union to protect themselves. The rest of us need them to be part of a union to help us protect the most popular -- and the most vulnerable -- public service in our communities.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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