The most interesting post about Vancouver’s strike you’ll read this week

No, not the one you’re reading right now, the one I’m directing you to at Beyond Robson.

It’s a member of the library union explaining her “no” vote in the strike. I suspect, especially on the pay-equity argument, she’s fairly representative of worker sentiments.

Oh, and hat-tip to ex-Metroblogger Travis for the pointer.

That said, the most interesting bit is where the author points out that the part-timers in the library union are most of the membership. It’s not unusual for part-time and auxiliary members of a union to have very different negotiation priorities from the full-time workers.

I was also curious as to the background on the “it’s the pay equity” arguments being bandied about as most fundamental to this enduring strike. To their credit, CUPE 391 has lots of background documents on their site. And a blog!

But the pay equity arguments are dodging some basic economic issues, and the work-equivalency arguments are essentially unsupported by the facts. Just to take one basic argument in their “Pay Equity for Library Workers” backgrounder, they claim that “[t]he library can be considered an
industrial workplace…” with “significant occupational hazards.”

Which are of course reflected in the WorkSafe BC insurance rates for these relative occupations, right?

Library or Resource Centre $0.38; Warehouse Operation $3.14.

Oh, and if you’re still reading, the basic economic issue they’re missing is that the present economy needs a lot of strong backs and construction laborers, and not that many library scientists. And to the extent it does need them, a public library (as opposed to a private corporate library or an academic research library) is traditionally the bottom tier of libraries in terms of hiring and paying librarians. This isn’t by chance.

4 Comments so far

  1. spartikus (unregistered) on October 12th, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

    Today in the Sun, City Librarian Paul Whitney indicated the Vancouver Public Library would face a recruitment crisis if the pay grade bump for Pay Equity was arranged more evenly amongst VPL staff. (Apparently this crisis has only developed since Brian Foley made his recommendation last Friday. Otherwise a lot of time could have been saved and hardship avoided)

    The labour shortage in Vancouver is not simply for “strong backs”. It touches every sector.

    But Pay Equity isn’t an economic argument. It’s a human rights issue. If we governed our society by economics alone, slavery would still be with us.

  2. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on October 13th, 2007 @ 12:49 am

    Pay equity sounds like a human rights issue because it used to mean “equal pay for equal work,” reflecting the past practice of specifying a different pay rate for men and women in the same job (and often a different pay rate for single and married men).

    Needless to say, that is illegal today. Which certainly suggests that BC has some sort of pay-equity rules.

    What pay equity now means, in the argot of the union movement, is “equal pay for work of equal value.”

    Pop quiz: how do you decide that two pieces of work are of equal value?

    If the librarians were only arguing for equivalency with other librarians in other libraries, well, they’d face the argument I gave above, and the suggestion that if they were that good, they should send their resumes to UBC. Or North Vancouver. The nature of these negotiations is that the union and management are both bargaining for the best deal they can get, given the leverage they have.

    Now, it’s interesting that Foley is suddenly talking recruiting crisis, but it’s probably not entirely insane: they likely are having more trouble filling some positions than others, and it’s not a shock that they want to negotiate money into the hard-to-fill positions. In cases of extreme hardship, union and management generally agree to attach a “market stipend” to certain positions, which is basically a targeted pay increase for just a single job classification, not the entire pay level.

    If the recruitment issue is legit, then the union (reasonably enough) wants to spread the cash to all of its members (very democratic) and then wait for the employer to come begging to attach a market adjustment stipend to the hard-to-fill jobs.

    Unfortunately, much of the union’s pay equity argument is manifestly meretricious. They argue in broad terms that they face the same dangers as industrial workers. Of course, the Worksafe tariffs argue in very specific terms that they face a small fraction of the quantitative danger that (as one example) a warehouse worker does.

    In other words, they’re goofing for the cameras.

    This isn’t a human rights issue, it’s a union negotiating tactic, and I support the right of unions to bargain, and I encourage them to continue putting out their best arguments on their website.

    And having seen those arguments, I support the right of the union to sit on the picket line until kingdom come, if that’s what they want to do.

    Verging nearly completely off-topic, I don’t know who’s been telling you that slavery was economically productive, but it’s not this economist. The comments on that lesson may be a fruitful starting point for your further research into the topic, and here’s one more hint: you could construct a reasonable argument that the story of the US Civil War should be read as the prosperous, industrial, and free North being able to utterly destroy the slave-dependent economy of the South.

    That said, your point about human rights taking precedence over economics is a reasonable one. Get back to me when a human rights issue crops up in this dispute.

    A free person is a productive person,

  3. spartikus (unregistered) on October 13th, 2007 @ 9:51 am

    Pop quiz: how do you decide that two pieces of work are of equal value?

    You break jobs down into their component parts, which are then assigned points by a committee composed of both management and union. You then add up the score and compare, say, Civic Planners at City Hall and Librarians at VPL and adjust the wage accordingly. It’s a process that has been implemented in elsewhere in this country, and in other municipalities in Metro Vancouver, most notably Burnaby.

    They argue in broad terms that they face the same dangers as industrial workers.

    This is upside down: only part of the union’s argument deals with the manual labour aspect. It’s mostly about level of education, responsibility, and complexity of task required.

    But regardless, why be afraid of a process that would objectively measure whether the strong backs of the outside workers do more or less heavy work than the strong backs of certain positions at the library? It may well be this process would indicate a boost in pay was not warranted, and this possible outcome is accepted by membership.

    This isn’t a human rights issue,

    Pay Equity has been identified as a human rights issue by the Federal Government, by most other provinces (most notably Ontario), and in international law.

    I’d caution that slavery is not simply “Slavery in the Antebellum South”. The Greeks and Romans swore by it, and just how economical it was changes with conditions over time.

    But I think the more important point is that slavery was viewed as the most economical systeme at the time. Much as undervaluing traditionally female careers is seen as simply a function of the market today.

  4. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on October 13th, 2007 @ 5:16 pm

    The open question on this point is whether there is, in fact, gender discrimination going on in this case. Just because librarians are more female than male doesn’t make their wages a human rights issue.

    I mean, if it was a human rights issue, they could seek Charter relief, which certainly suggests the strike is a waste of time. (is three months out of work really easier than initiating a court case?)

    As for the manual labour aspect, I think I need to quote more of CUPE’s pay equity research document:

    “Library workers’ work duties are far from sedentary. The library can be considered an industrial workplace requiring heavy lifting, shelving and moving books as common tasks. Consequently, there are significant occupational hazards: repetitive strain injuries, musculoskeletal injuries, harassment and violence from the public.”

    The WorkSafe numbers suggest that the hazard of injury for a librarian is nowhere near that faced by actual industrial workers. The tariff for librarians is among the lowest of all occupations, lower than for any retail classification (Eyewear sales are listed at $0.44, tied with several less amusing categories for lowest in retail)
    The unfeeling-robot-monster-economist interpretation of wage disparities is to usually assume that they reflect a combination of the employer’s valuation of the work and the difficulty of replacing the employee.

    In other words, if very few people can do your job, you can write your own ticket. If the typical wage demands for a particular task are uneconomically high, then the employer usually looks for an alternate way of getting the work done, or gets out of the business that requires such high-paid talent.

    Putting it briefly, public library services are probably one of the “softest” services municipalities offer: everybody wants garbage collection, permitting and licensing are valuable to both the city and the people who need permits or licenses, but libraries are a pure cost centre for the city, and while I love public libraries like crazy and use them all the time, they are neither a visceral human need nor are they hard to substitute for the desperate: you can use your VPL card in other municipalities, there’s still publically accessible libraries at almost every post-secondary institution in town, and there are two free daily papers distributed throughout the city.

    In other words, I don’t think the librarians have a lot of leverage.

    I have to thank you, Spartikus, for articulately holding up your side of the argument and providing some good rebuttals (especially on the equity issue, though it appears now I merely disagree with you, CUPE, and the UN…).

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