Librarians insist pay equity long overdue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2007, 12:00am


The librarians say it is overdue - and they're not talking about one of their loaned books. They have taken to the picket lines in an effort to secure a pay rise. For the first time in their 77-year history, librarians in Vancouver are on strike. On the picket lines, the workers have set up an information booth and a book exchange for readers who still need their literary fix.

Their local union is part of the core of striking municipal workers' unions whose members have been out since the end of July. In the past, even while city workers were on strike, the library section stayed out of labour disputes.

The strike is heading into its third month, and one of the biggest and most unexpected issues to emerge has been pay equity. The city has offered 17.5 per cent wage increases over five years, but the librarians are holding out for something grander. Librarian Laura Safarian, who has a master's degree, says the job isn't just sitting behind a desk.

'Library workers are highly educated and trained in technology because our job requires it,' she says, walking the picket line. 'Why do we have to be punished for being educated?'

The concept of pay equity - equal pay for work of equal value - has been niggling library workers for a long time. A starting salary for a worker in a Vancouver library is about C$27,000 (HK$199,500). A labourer hired by the city starts at C$43,000 and requires only a high school education.

For librarians, the message is that society values strength and the ability to shovel more than literacy and information technology skills.

Political science professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen at Simon Fraser University says unions have become increasingly adamant about the issue of pay equity.

After years of lobbying by special interest groups, the provincial government in the 1990s was on the verge of bringing in pay equity legislation. But then on the eve of passing into law, a new government came in and the matter was dropped.

British Columbia is one province that does not have pay equity legislation, which compels the government to consider evaluating which jobs are of equal value, and therefore serve equal pay.

'Because the government doesn't have legislation, it's up to the unions to negotiate it,' Professor Griffin Cohen says.

Right or wrong, different jobs are paid different wages and the city's chief librarian, Paul Whitney, says comparing positions is a subjective process. Some may argue that library workers who sit inside can't compare themselves to outdoor workers who are called out to fix oozing sewer lines.

Mr Whitney points out that although library workers often have master's degrees, the job technically only requires completion of high school. By employing people who want to work with books and other reading materials, the library benefits from having a staff of workers who genuinely love what they do - and are not necessarily there for the money.

Talks between the city and its striking workers restarted last week after a long stalemate, with both sides blaming the other for the lack of progress.

The union insists members' resolve remains strong. But with a pay rise promised, it may be getting hard to resist the steadiness of a regular pay cheque - and leaving the fight for pay equity for another day.