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Cowichan pickets could mark start of rotating Vancouver Island library job action

Librarians awaiting response to their latest counteroffer

Picket lines are up at Vancouver Island library’s Cowichan branch, as of 9 a.m. today, Wednesday, March 9.

“The picket is the first step in escalated job action from the librarians who are awaiting response to their latest counteroffer from the employer via the Labour Relations Board mediator,” said a press release issued by the BCGEU Tuesday night.

“To be clear: librarians do not want to picket – they want to be at work serving their communities,” said Stephanie Smith, BCGEU president. “Our members’ demands are fair and reasonable. VIRL has the power to end our job action and restore library services for the people of the Cowichan Valley.”

Picket lines are in place from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the union is asking patrons to honour the picket line to support the librarians should VIRL opt to keep the branch open during their strike.

“Librarians are also calling on the VIRL Board of Trustees to encourage the employer to provide a fair offer and return to negotiations,” said the release.

The pickets only effect the Cowichan branch on Wednesday, said the BCGEU.

“Only the Cowichan branch is impacted by pickets today. We’re still awaiting a response from the employer to our counteroffer and hope they will return to negotiations with an offer that will end job action,” said the BCGEU. “Until then, pickets could go up at additional branches – the union has 90 days to action our strike mandate and we are making plans on a day-to-day basis.

Updates will be posted to - and library users can check that site for updates.

Vancouver Island Regional Library officials say they are “disappointed” in the direction talks with its BCGEU employees have headed.

The collective agreement between the VIRL and BC General Employees’ Union Local 702 expired on Dec. 31, 2020 and the two sides have been bargaining since September 2021.

The BCGEU received a new offer from their employer on March 1 after they issued a strike notice — an offer the union believes failed to “go far enough on wages given members’ working conditions.”

“Librarians don’t want job action,” said BCGEU President Stephanie Smith. “They want respect from their employer. Yet all they’ve received is delays, unfair proposals and disrespectful treatment – and that’s just during bargaining.”

The union sent a counter offer, but that offer was “disappointing”, according to VIRL spokesperson David Carson.

“The British Columbia General Employees’ Union Local 702 has counter offered with wage increases greater than those the union had previously identified it would accept,” said a media release issued by Carson. “Vancouver Island Regional Library is disappointed that BCGEU appears to be moving away from the opportunity to achieve an agreement which is in the interest of all parties.”

On Feb. 22 the union — which represents 42 full time employees, or 12 per cent of VIRL’s permanent workforce — announced it had voted 95 per cent in favour of job action and two days later, the BCGEU served 72-hour strike notice.

VIRL’s CUPE Local 401 employees, which represents 55 per cent of VIRL’s permanent workforce — will honour any BCGEU picket lines. Near the end of 2021, VIRL had jointly ratified a collective agreement with CUPE 401.

“Job action may include primary, secondary or rotational picketing at VIRL locations,” said a previous press release issued by Carson, the director of corporate communications for VIRL. “As a result, we regret that VIRL’s service delivery will be impacted, though precise impacts remain unclear at this time. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and commit to continuing constructive efforts towards bargaining resolution with our valued colleagues.”

Meanwhile, VIRL’s librarians sent a group letter to the organization’s 38 trustees “to ensure that librarians’ next collective agreement provides them with fundamental supports – including a psychologically safe and respectful workplace, and wages that align with other libraries and lessen the impact of cost of living and inflation – and pressure the employer, who they oversee, to return to the table and mitigate picket lines and impacts on the community.”

They encourage members of the community to write similar letters to their local library trustee in support.

VIRL employees who belong to BCGEU Local 702 are professional librarians and colleagues who work at 20 of 39 branches, and in the VIRL’s Information Technology, Collections, and Support Services divisions.

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Lead by Hammond Bay library manager/chair of the BCGEU unit’s bargaining committee Jen Seper, librarians voiced their opinions at the picket line at the Cowichan District branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library on Wednesday, March 9. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)