City in their bad books
Library workers complain of safety concerns; forced to trade supplies with other branches
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Winnipeg library staff refuse to be shushed.
They say they are overworked and underpaid, and are forced to break up potentially violent situations. Moreover, they feel disrespected by library users and City of Winnipeg administration.
These are among the testimonials anonymous library workers have shared on the “Winnipeg Library Facts” Instagram account, which gives their complaints and concerns a public forum since they are not allowed to speak publicly.
“It’s depressing how cheap the city is. We get $100 a year to go buy supplies for our programs… for the whole year. It’s the same for the other branches,” one anonymous submission reads.
One poster said they have to trade supplies, such as envelopes and pens, to ensure each branch has enough.
“When the mayor or councillors or city admin say they are speaking with ‘library workers’… why don’t they talk to us? The real front-line workers across the system?” another says.
Because library workers are City of Winnipeg employees, they are directed to refer on-the-job questions from media to the wider corporate communications division. As a result, some feel the outside world isn’t getting the full story.
That’s where the organizers of Winnipeg Library Facts come in. The social media page has grown to 1,000 followers in one month. The small team of current and former library workers, and their supporters, fact-check the testimonials that are submitted, share them, and offer information of their own, including comparing administration powers, staffing levels, budgets and salaries of other libraries compared to Winnipeg branches.
They’ve also created a toolkit that has templates and suggestions as to how to share their concerns with city councillors, for example.
View this post on Instagram
Posting a library worker’s photo or name could result in disciplinary action.
Two moderators — one, a current library worker in Manitoba, and another, a former library employee — agreed to speak with the Free Press under the condition of anonymity.
“Even when you look at recent media coverage of the library, of the (Millennium Library) security, there’s no library staff talking about that. It’s City of Winnipeg media people who maybe have never actually been in a library, who don’t know the particulars of what is actually happening within the library,” the library worker told the Free Press.
“It’s frustrating when the library staff who have that experience can’t speak for themselves.”
The December 2022 slaying of Tyree Cayer in the lobby of the Millennium Library put the state of Winnipeg’s library system under a spotlight, both in front of and behind the circulation desk.
While city administration and union leaders discussed how to reopen the library, some workers realized that because city council, and not the Winnipeg Public Library board, is its governing body (most library systems in large Canadian cities are governed by their board of directors), their contributions to the conversation weren’t being recognized.
“I think after the homicide in December staff really became aware of how the library’s leadership team, the library’s administration, really is very powerless,” she said.
“They are great advocates for libraries, but ultimately they just don’t have the power to change the budgets or to make the changes that library staff want to see.”
For years, staff members have sounded the alarm about feeling increasingly unsafe at work. They were so burned out and under pressure that they felt like their fears had finally been addressed after security measures, including metal detectors, were put in place following Cayer’s slaying.
The security, which costs $10,000 a week, has been criticized by some who say it turns away vulnerable people from the library.
“There was a definite feeling among staff that a serious incident was inevitable, and then it happened, and that was the final straw,” she said.
A former library worker who moderates the account said she decided to approach staff on the down-low to get them involved because of the frustrations she had while working at a library.
“What I’ve heard from some of my friends and former colleagues inside is that they’re really happy to see a lot of these issues coming out into the public, some of these issues that have been issues for years,” she said.
Coun. John Orlikow, chair of the city’s community services committee, did not comment by press time. City spokesperson David Driedger said the administration was aware of the Instagram account.
When asked if he had been made aware of the account, CUPE president Gord Delbridge said he was “aware that there’s many anonymous, fake… groups,” but was not specific.
CUPE, which represents city library staff, elects a community services division president to speak on behalf of library workers.
“We have 5,000 employees, and so if everyone was to all speak at once, he wouldn’t be able to hear anyone,” he said.
Delbridge said any city staffer who feels their perspective isn’t being fairly made clear to the public should get in contact with their union rep.
“There’s a process for that. They just get in contact with their union, and we are the representative on behalf of those employees,” he said.
Winnipeg Library Facts organizers say the tight-knit community of library staff is cheering the account on, as are workers from other provinces, who are aware of funding and staffing issues here.
“I think there’s a lot of questions about who’s behind it,” the former library worker said. “But I think now that we’re at this place… I think there’s also some growing… security in knowing that this is anonymous, and this is a respected, trustworthy site that is sharing accurate information.”
The current library worker said she hopes those who read the account are “loud and insistent” on the importance of well-funded libraries to city leadership.
“Don’t let yourself be blown off by your councillor who claims that our libraries are doing just fine,” she said. “They are not.”
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.