“They’ve forced our hand”: Library and gallery staff strike

JNAAG photo via Facebook Patrons wait to get into the new Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia earlier this year. A county council committee has nixed the idea of an admission fee for the new gallery for now.

JNAAG photo via Facebook
Workers at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery are on strike after Lambton County imposed a four-year contract.

“They’ve forced our hand.”

With that, members of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union decided late Friday night to set up picketlines at the Sarnia Public Library and the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery Saturday morning.

Late Friday afternoon, Lambton County which runs both the library and gallery announced it wouldn’t lock out the 55 workers who are in a legal strike position at 12:01 am Saturday.

They have been without a contract since December. The county and the union have met four times trying to reach an agreement. Sixteen days ago, the Ontario Labour Relations Board issued a no-board report, clearing the way for either a strike or a lockout.

David Cribbs, general manager of corporate services, says talks with the union had been difficult. “In the past seven months we’ve negotiated seven collective agreements with other groups …and they’re all 1 percent and 1.5 percent,” he says. “We couldn’t come close to that with this group….if you don’t have a willing dance partner you have to dance solo.”

Cribbs met with the staff of the Sarnia Public Library and the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery today to outline the new contract terms. There is an immediate salary increase of one per cent retroactive to January, with another one percent in each of the next four years

The county says the sick leave benefit paid out on retirement will end with people who have banked sick days being paid out at the end of the current year. Cribbs says none of the other 1175 county employees have this benefit.

Cribbs acknowledged it isn’t often contracts are imposed. “We were concerned we were already headed toward a strike…and our staff has a constitution right to strike. We hope that what we’ve offered is sufficiently fair…to avoid that outcome,” he says. “We’ve really laid all our cards out on the table…this is what we were prepared to negotiate to and this is what we are prepared to live with; are they?”

CEP National Rep Glen Sonier was somewhat surprised by the move saying the union was not about to disrupt service at the library and gallery. In fact, he says, negotiations are scheduled for Monday. “Everybody was satisfied we were not going on strike,” he says.

Sonier adds the monetary issues are not the employees primary concern. “(The imposed contract) is a legal thing that they could do; it’s something that’s not used because employers hold out to the fact they want to work with the union…in the end you want to get people back to work and have a relationship,” says Sonier. “The relationship has been gone in this place for a while…we have issues with bullying and dictating sort of style and this is another clear indication of the employer which wants to have its way.”

Sonier and his executive met late into the evening to discuss the move and decided they had no options. “The union was not going on strike; we were continuing to bargain,” says Sonier adding talks were set for Monday. “They forced our hand.

“A lot of workers are upset they are being treated with such disregard…why not just wait until Monday and let negotiations take their course,” says Sonier. “They are quite upset they were disrespected in this manner.

“We already have issues of bullying…a pushing management style; to do this two day before going to the bargaining table, it,s like ‘yeah, we’re going to do what we want.’ This is Sarnia-Lambton not Afghanistan…these are union busting tactics.”

Sonier says union members will be walking the picketlines in front of the library and gallery Saturday morning. The county says the facilities will be closed during a strike.

Meantime Sonier is asking municipal leaders to get involved. “I’m not sure they know what’s happening,” he says. “I’m sure many of them wouldn’t support anti-union action.”