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After four years of planning, CUPE’s first-ever Western Library Workers Conference kicked off in Burnaby on Thursday with opening night speeches that paid tribute to CUPE library workers and the important role they play as community builders.

Themed “Connecting Our Communities”, the conference opened with event co-chair Zoe Magnus, president of CUPE 523 in Penticton, repeating the call for pay equity that most CUPE locals in the library sector have yet to see.

CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill encouraged library workers in that struggle, saying they have come a long way and will no longer be ignored.

And CUPE continues to organize in the sector,” he added: “We have over 2,000 library workers in B.C. right now. We’re hoping that by next year this time we’ll have 3,000.”

Making connections, building capacity

O’Neill, in a nod to the conference theme, described library workers as a unifying force for their communities.

You provide invaluable assistance for important public research, and you help young people through their high school and post-secondary educations,” he said. “You organize public events that connect authors with their readerships, and, in all your other work as well, you reinforce the library’s role as a place to build community.”

CUPE National secretary-treasurer Claude Généreux talked about the union’s increasing involvement with the sector.

CUPE has a very strong presence in Canada’s library sector,” said Généreux, adding that in 2007 there were close to 35,000 library workers across the country—a number that includes librarians, library clerks, and library archive technicians and assistants, working both full- and part-time.

CUPE represents more than 16,000 library workers in eight economic sectors, or 47 per cent of all library workers in Canada. And 60 per cent of all CUPE library members work in the public library sector. The rest work in schools, universities, and other institutions.”

Progress slow—but inevitable

Généreux, commenting on the struggle for pay equity, noted that CUPE members have made great strides in some areas.

In B.C. alone he singled out CUPE 391 (Vancouver Public Library), which after an 88-day strike last year reached a mediated settlement that provided for the addition of a joint-committee on classification issues, expanded benefit coverage and improvements to return-to-work provisions such as maternity, parental and adoption leave; and CUPE 410 (Greater Victoria Public Library), which after a nearly six-week lockout earlier this year was successful in achieving a four-year contract that includes pay equity with other municipal workers, nine new full-time positions, and a 12-per-cent wage increase.

Campaigns have also been mounted by Saskatchewan library workers, and in Toronto public libraries have just reached a 20-million-dollar pay equity settlement that will see incomes rise for our members there, and it’s retroactive to 2004,” he said.

Généreux closed by sharing his admiration for Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night.

From the design of the structure, to the placement and order of the books, as well as what kind of books they are, Manguel describes his own library and experiences, and shares his great book-knowledge, leading us on a pleasant journey across times and places, exploring the history of book-collections and the people behind them, libraries and the books in them,” he said.

The book’s premise reminds me of the work you do, building libraries in your communities day in and day out…..Investing in our communities, promoting literacy, instilling a joy of reading, and enriching our civilization, is something you do as naturally as breathing, and it’s something CUPE will continue to do with you.”

Généreux’s speech was followed by a short video presentation that revealed, without commentary or dialogue, how CUPE library workers connect with library patrons and the public.

The value of public space

The evening’s keynote speaker, Soucouyant author David Chariandy, said he was moved by a time-lapse sequence in the video that showed large crowds filing into the main branch of Vancouver Public Library.

Chariandy, who wrote most of his acclaimed first novel on the fourth floor of the downtown VPL, moved delegates with a deeply personal reflection on why libraries are important to him—a story that mirrors much of the young boy’s relationship with his librarian in Soucouyant.

I like working in the Vancouver Public Library because it has everything I need to write. The first thing I need is space. I have two kids at home, and I need to get away,” he said.

Public space is dwindling, but public libraries remain a space where you can read, have a table, a source of electricity, a fountain for my water bottle, and—most important—the librarians themselves. They’ve aided me in countless ways. They’ve brought me materials I need, and shown a degree of expertise I didn’t even realize existed.”

What makes libraries special, he said, is that they are “a portal to knowledge” that know no barriers.

My father and mother came to this country from Trinidad in 1963, a time when Canadian cities look quite different than they do now,” he said. “Mother was a domestic worker; father was sponsored by her a year after she arrived. He worked in a furniture factory. They performed hard work with great integrity and dignity.”

Accessibility the key

Chariandy said that while he had many advantages—speaking English, he never had to learn a second language, had conventional physical abilities and good health—there were also certain disadvantages growing up as the black, South Asian son of working class immigrants in a community that was largely middle class and white.

I felt systematically shut out of the world of letters,” he said, adding that the library opened up that world to him.

Accessibility remains one of the most important things that a library can develop,” he said. “But accessibility isn’t just removing impediments that prevent certain people from entering the library. It’s also about making positive steps to actively welcome people of all backgrounds into the library.”

The room erupted in laughter when Chariandy asked, “Why do we always fall in love with librarians?”

The answer: “We love the person who exhibits a passion for knowledge, and library workers have always done that.”

CUPE Alberta recording secretary R’hena Oake, also president of CUPE 1169 (Calgary library workers), welcomed delegates on Alberta’s behalf while CUPE Saskatchewan president Tom Graham brought greetings on behalf of his provincial division.

About 150 delegates representing 46 CUPE locals from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, along with union members from the Professional Employees Association and the British Columbia Government and Services Employees Union, have registered for the conference. The event continues today (Friday) and tomorrow at the Metrotown Hilton.