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Essex library strike set to enter sixth month

Essex County library works on the picket line. (Photo: CUPE)

Essex County library works on the picket line. (Photo: CUPE)

A library workers strike in Ontario’s Essex County that has left many residents without reading material, Internet access, or community meeting space will soon enter its sixth month. The strike is already the longest library strike in the province’s history.

Members of CUPE 2974 walked out on June 25, closing 14 library branches across seven municipalities. The 58 library staffers – all but five of whom are women and 80 per cent of whom are part-time – have walked the picket line every day but Sundays, through one of the historically hottest summers on record.

The strike – the first in the 35 years the library workers have been unionized – began after talks broke down over proposed changes to sick leave requested by the Corporation of the County of Essex, as well as demands that requests for short-term disability go through a new third-party insurance company. Lori Wightman, a librarian and unit chair of CUPE 2974, says library staff could have stayed at work during negotiations, as they have during past disputes, but the Essex County Library Board ended talks prematurely. Richard Meloche, deputy mayor of the town of Essex and chair of the library board, declined to comment, citing “sensitive” negotiations.

“We worry about [the man] who came into the library every day to use the computer because he didn’t have one,” Wightman says. “I see [patrons] every day. They can’t buy books. They can’t go to movies. They can’t afford it.”

The consequences to the greater community of Essex County have been harder to see at times. But they’re serious for many regular library users, particularly those with low incomes. “I have a friend who’s a single mom, and she can’t afford the Internet for her kids,” says Deborah Lesperance, a frequent library patron in Amherstburg, a town of 19,000 near the Detroit River. “I see people sitting outside of the library on the bench, using the Internet.” The nearest library is a half-hour drive away in Windsor.

Wightman says there is one patron she particularly worries about. “Probably about a month ago, I saw one of our regulars,” she says. “He comes in every other week and gets 10 to 20 books on tape for his elderly mother, who is blind. She would read absolutely anything. Romance, non-fiction, detective novels. … That’s part of our job we love: finding the right thing for the right person. He told us, ‘I had to go buy [books on tape] and it cost me $90 for three. I can’t afford that.’ I don’t know what his mother has been doing for four months.

“It makes us very, very sad.”