VIRL action kicks off in Cowichan as library staff demand fair wages

Staff have been without a collective agreement for over a year.

The Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) Cowichan Branch in North Cowichan was closed on Wednesday, March 9 as members of the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) and their supporters picketed outside the library.

Library workers stood outside the location from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. as part of the first action since the BCGEU issued a strike notice on Feb. 28. 

Jennifer Seper, the VIRL librarians bargaining committee chairperson and spokesperson, said the strike has been a long time coming. 

“We have been without a collective agreement since December of 2020 […] We had a lot of workplace issues,” she explained. “A lot of those we were able to resolve at the table, and what we still have outstanding right now is a respectful offer from our employer on wages.”

 Seper said members’ wages don’t account for the rising cost of living on Vancouver Island.

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“For many years, our wages have not kept up with the cost of living. And now with inflation and extreme cost of living increases, it’s really come to a crunch for a lot of the employees,” she said. “Members are looking for wages that show our employer values us and values the work we do in communities.” 

That work goes beyond sorting books and hosting reading circles, she emphasized, pointing to the role libraries play in supporting vulnerable community members. 

“Libraries are the last place in our society where all people are welcomed,” Seper said. “It’s a place where you don’t have to spend money, and we’re open to all members […] It’s a place where folks can come for community connection, a place that they can come to stay warm and safe for the day.”

“The last two years with COVID have been especially tough on a lot of people, and there are not a lot of other places that offer the services that we do.”

Related story: Libraries in Cowichan expand services after pandemic shutdown

Other key issues Seper said have already been resolved at the bargaining table include occupational health and safety and respectful treatment of staff in the workplace. However, the VIRL employer did not respond to a counteroffer regarding wages and benefits sent on March 1.

In a news release, VIRL says that the union “has counter offered with wage increases greater than those the union had previously identified it would accept,” and “appears to be moving away from the opportunity to achieve an agreement which is in the interest of all parties.”

To minimize community disruption, the bargaining committee has enacted rotating strikes throughout VIRL branches. Seper said even rolling closures can be upsetting for patrons and staff alike.

“We didn’t want to be on a picket line and we don’t want to shut branches [down],” she said. “We are very conscious of the loss to a community of even a day of the library being shut. So we’re really hoping that by taking job action today the employer will be back at the table with us with another offer.”

Community reception to the strike has been positive so far, Seber added.

“We had lots of people stopping […] coming over to say hello to the library staff, just saying how much they appreciate us. That’s been really lovely.”

She encouraged those interested in showing solidarity to visit the BCGEU website’s VIRL landing page, which has information about ongoing actions and VIRL board members’ contact information. [end]

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