This profile provides CUPE members with information about the sector they work in from a national perspective.
CUPE’s over 22,000 library workers provide front-line services to communities in every province across the country. Members are employed by public library boards, municipalities, universities, colleges, and school boards.
CUPE represents the majority of unionized library workers in Canada.
The primary job classifications are librarian, library clerk, library archive technician, and page. Most library workers (85%) are women. Racialized workers account for about 12% of CUPE library members.
Libraries, a public good
Libraries are open to everyone. They are safe spaces for vulnerable and marginalized populations including the homeless and impoverished, people struggling with mental health and addictions, people with disabilities, racialized and Indigenous populations, and the 2SLGBTQI+ communities. Libraries promote democratic principles of equity, accessibility, and inclusion.
Libraries help drive the economy. They help break the cycle of poverty by providing free access to the internet, job search, and skills development. Libraries also promote literacy development, an essential skill in today’s job market, and provide services for seniors, employment supports, language and reading groups, and citizenship test preparation.
Canada’s public libraries log 100 million visits and lend 2.1 million books every year. Nearly two-thirds of Canadians have a library card.
Libraries are funded by all three levels of government. Municipalities are the largest funders spending more than the federal and provincial governments combined. The federal government funds national libraries, while the provinces and territories fund public, school, university, and college libraries.
Provincial and municipal governments have repeatedly attempted to defund libraries. For decades, governments have slashed budgets and implemented wage freezes in the public sector leading to job loss, increased workloads, services cuts, and increased risks of privatization. The introduction of new technologies, including staffless libraries and self-service check-out, has led to job loss.
Funding cuts to social services has resulted in numerous Canadians turning to their local libraries for help to find social supports. The demand for information about immigration and job search assistance has increased. Funding cuts that lead to fewer staff can contribute to increased workloads resulting in a heightened risk of workplace violence when patrons become frustrated or angry with a perceived lack of service.
The pandemic has contributed to, and in some cases has exacerbated, ongoing challenges in the sector. Library workers are concerned that employers may view the pandemic as an opportunity to permanently layoff staff and reduce, restructure, and privatize services.
Despite these challenges the pandemic shone a spotlight on the important work that library workers provide to help keep Canadians connected to each other and to their communities. Libraries moved many services and programming online to keep patrons and staff safe from exposure to the virus. Library workers reached out to marginalized and vulnerable populations, set up food banks, and delivered books and other library materials to childcare centres and other care facilities.
They also phoned thousands of seniors to check on their health and wellness, and to assist with scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations.
Workplace hazards and Violence
Reports of workplace violence incidents increased during the pandemic. Patrons refusing to obey mandatory mask requirements have verbally and physically assaulted, threatened, and stalked library workers. Incidents of violence against workers and patrons forced the Saskatoon Public Library to temporarily close two of its branches.
Library workers interact with homeless people and people struggling with mental health issues and addictions. Many public libraries have become the new front lines for the opioid crisis. These realities can put workers’ health and safety at risk.
Workplace violence is a hazard with specific causes that is made more challenging due to repeated government attacks on library funding.
For more information on workplace violence see the CUPE fact sheet, Violence in our libraries and what to do about it.
The CUPE National Library Workers’ Survey on Precarious Employment found that a large percentage of library workers are precariously employed. Precarious work may be part-time, temporary, casual, or contract work. These non-permanent positions offer fewer full-time hours of work and limited access to extended health insurance benefits and pension plans.
The survey results revealed that 53%of CUPE library workers are either precariously employed or are vulnerable to precarious employment. Library workers who are precariously employed tend to work less than full-time hours, earn less than $40,000 annually, have more than one job, and work as library clerks or assistants.
Many part-time workers hold down several jobs to make ends meet and are unable to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
A common privatization threat is the contracting out of bibliographical services such as ordering, processing, cataloguing material, and technology.
The move to self-service checkout and book returns is common, leading to fewer staff positions and a decrease in the valued front-line service culture.
Private contractors tend to cut corners, lay off or hire fewer staff, and try to cut wages and benefits.
Public-private partnerships (P3s) are a recent threat. The City of Ottawa considered a P3 for the development of the Ottawa Public Library’s new main branch. A successful campaign by CUPE 503 forced the city to abandon its P3 proposal in favour of a plan to house the new public library in a new development near the city centre. Ottawa’s new public library is scheduled to open in 2025.
Technological change and Staffless libraries
Staffless libraries are a growing trend in communities across the country. A staffless library is just that—a library with no on-site staff during extended hours. They mean fewer jobs, fewer programs for the public, reduced access for vulnerable communities, and increased risks to public safety. Staffless libraries are now part of the Toronto Public Library (CUPE 4948), Hamilton Public Library (CUPE 932.04), and Calgary Public Library (CUPE 1169), and are being considered in the Regina Public Library (CUPE 1594), Kingston-Frontenac Public Library (CUPE 2202), and the Essex County Public Library (CUPE 2318).
Self-service check-out is another cost cutting tool that has resulted in numerous staff layoffs. A staff report to the Toronto Public Library Board revealed that 81 full-time jobs had been lost as a direct result of self-service check-out technology.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a threat to library workers’ job security because it allows patrons to check materials in and out of the library without staff assistance. RFID is an electronic chip that re-places traditional barcodes. It is used to identify and track books, DVDs, CDs, and other library materials. Initially praised as a tool to help staff, RFID is increasingly used by management to cut positions.
Use of volunteers
Library workers are concerned about the use of unpaid volunteers. Employers use volunteers to cut labour costs and to avoid creating new, paying jobs. Women workers are most affected since volunteers typically donate their time in female-dominated sectors including libraries. But volunteers themselves are not the problem; rather, it’s how employers choose to use volunteer labour that can create a negative labour relations climate. For more information see CUPE’s fact sheet, Use of Volunteers in CUPE’s Library Sector.
Services for indigenous communities
Public library services are insufficient or completely lacking in small, rural, and remote Indigenous communities. Many communities have no access to properly funded public libraries, especially those on reserves or in remote regions. There is a lack of materials produced and published in Indigenous languages. Advocacy groups have called on governments to provide more funding.
Austerity and concessions
CUPE library locals experienced difficult negotiations during COVID-19 and the post-pandemic bargaining climate won’t be easier. We are seeing renewed calls for austerity as governments and employers prepare to slash spending. We know what we’re up against. Decades of harsh economic policies have resulted in budget cuts, wage freezes, underfunded programs and services, layoffs, and employers seeking concessions at the bargaining table.
CUPE’s bargaining policy rejects concessions and two-tier proposals. We bargain forward, not backward. We won’t bargain away hard-won achievements. It’s important for locals to continue to bring that message to the bargaining table. Strong public services will get us through the pandemic to the economic and social recovery and beyond. Investing in strong public services and infrastructure will help us weather the pandemic towards a better, more equal future.
Other bargaining issues
Most library locals bargain directly with their employers. In some areas, lead local or limited coordinated bargaining is part of an overall bargaining strategy.
The CUPE B.C. library sector bargaining conference is a good example of bargaining coordination and education. Members participated in workshops on preparing for bargaining, mobilizing members, strategic planning, and communications.
CUPE library locals have made noticeable gains in the past two years despite the tough bargaining climate. Most negotiated wage increases are in the 1.5 to 2% range. CUPE 391, Vancouver Public Library, bargained new provisions for cultural leave, Indigenous representation, and trans-affirming care leave. The local also bargained a compensation package that is inclusive of precariously employed workers.
Locals also bargained improvements to employee training, sick leave benefits, health care benefits, compassionate and bereavement leaves, and maternity, parental, and adoption leave clauses.
About 92% of CUPE members working in public libraries can participate in a registered pension plan. Defined benefit plans are the most common type of pension and are typically provided through the City or Municipal Pension Plan.
Most part-time and casual workers are excluded from workplace pension plans or are required to meet high standards to be eligible. This hits workers at smaller library boards, mostly staffed by part-time workers, especially hard.
CUPE launched its first-ever, national library campaign to raise awareness of the important services provided by library workers in communities across the country. The social media campaign demands that employers and governments adequately fund and protect the important services that library workers provide. The campaign’s theme is Library Workers Bring Your Library to Life!
You can visit our campaign website and sign the pledge to add your voice to support library workers and to strengthen library services in our communities, schools, and post-secondary institutions.
The CUPE Quebec library workers’ committee has launched a video campaign to raise awareness of the important public services provided by library workers. Click on the following links to watch the video (available in French only). (29) Les travailleurs et travailleuses des bibliothèques du SCFP sous les projecteurs - YouTube
CUPE also recognizes the important contributions of libraries and library workers by participating in Canadian Library Month celebrations in October of each year. Click on the following link to learn more about our social media campaign for Canadian Library Month
Successful campaigns by CUPE and other groups forced the federal government to provide $26 million over five years to the Centre for Equitable Library Access and the National Network for Equitable Library Access. The move partially restores funding eliminated in 2020 and then increases funding in subsequent years. Both organizations provide services to Canadians with print disabilities. A print disability is a learning, physical or visual disability that prevents a person from reading conventional print. It includes vision impairment or blindness, dyslexia, literacy challenges, and physical disabilities such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.