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When Mayor Rob Ford announced in February that he planned to close the Urban Affairs Library branch of the Toronto Public Library as a “cost-cutting” measure, CUPE 4948, Toronto Public Library Workers, sprung to the defense of Toronto’s much-loved and used public libraries.  They organized a rally to oppose the closure of the library and wrote to councillors, encouraging City Council to keep the treasured branch open.

In the months since Council voted to close the library, the Toronto Mayor announced the city’s intention to cut 10% of the Toronto Public Library’s budget, threatening to close libraries, reduce open hours, and reduce or eliminate library programs. The public response to the announcement has been loud and clear – the citizens of Toronto do not support cuts to public libraries.

Members of the public quickly joined the Local’s online petition campaign and voiced their opposition to cuts. To date, in just three weeks, over 44,000 people signed the petition in support of Toronto’s public libraries.

Already, there are clear signs that public pressure is producing results.  A recent Globe and Mail article reports that at least six additional city councillors, including several from Mayor Rob Ford’s inner circle, have joined those speaking out against potential library closures. 

In early July, CUPE 4948 commissioned a survey from the highly respected research firm, Forum Research. Survey results showed that three-quarters of Toronto residents oppose closing library branches to cut costs and equally oppose library privatization. (Download a pdf of polling results at the end of this article.)

“We were concerned about the Ford administration’s slapdash ‘public consultation’ on the future of public services and the threat of further branch closures and the prospect of privatization, so we wanted to learn what the public really thought about these issues,” says Maureen O’Reilly, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union  (TPLWU), CUPE 4948.

The poll shows that Toronto voters have a clear message for Council when it comes to the Toronto Public Library: “Don’t close our libraries and don’t privatize them.”  That comes as no surprise to CUPE 4948 since 1.25 million Toronto residents hold a library card.  The public library has more than twice the circulation of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles – with over 11 million items in 40 languages available.

At a press conference on July 13, TPLWU President Maureen O’Reilly presented an oversized library card to Mayor Ford and invited him to visit any library branch, at any time. “Just walk right in, Mr. Mayor and bring along your million-dollar consultants if you like. Talk to the people you meet there and ask them where the gravy is,” said O’Reilly.  “We think you’ll get an earful.”

After showing that Torontonians do not want service cuts or privatization of services, CUPE 4948 helped people show support for City services. They developed a web site where people could get help making a deputation to the Special Standing Committees at City Hall; get information on the core services review; and take action against the cuts.  The site asks people to talk to friends, family, and co-workers about what is at stake in Toronto and encourages them to get involved and speak up. People were invited to come to council meetings and bring a friend.

The final Standing Committee meeting ran from 9:30 a.m. July 28 and ended at 6 a.m. on July 29.  There were over 300 people waiting to speak at this marathon session and about half of those made their deputations. Before anyone spoke the Mayor made it clear that they were going to “shrink City government, cut jobs and outsource.”

CUPE 4948 members and CUPE Ontario executive members carried in the 10 boxes that held petitions representing only a proportion of the 36,000 signatures collected by that date. As the petitions were carried in, the crowd started chanting ‘Save our libraries.’ Local President Maureen O’Reilly presented the petitions during her presentation.

CUPE 4948 continues their fight with initiatives that include reaching out to community members and organizations. Over the coming weeks the Local will work with community allies to protect public services for Toronto residents.

CUPE 4948, the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, represents 2,400 public library workers.