Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Edmonton Public Library flirts with cutting teens' wages

Alberta’s minimum wage for youth under 18 will be reduced tomorrow as part of a broad series of labour-law rollbacks enacted by the new United Conservative government. The short of it is that workers under 18 and enrolled in school will have a minimum wage of $13 per hour, instead of the $15 per hour earned by everyone else.

Some employers have publicly pledged to continuing paying youth the same wage as adults. Others are quietly rolling back wages. The first public case of a rollback was (oddly) the Edmonton Public Library.


The Edmonton Public Library (EPL) has a pretty good reputation as a library system and its staff provides wonderful services, often to vulnerable populations. The EPL also contributes to and is committed to important democratic principles such as intellectual freedom: “Intellectual Freedom protects your right to read, listen, write and speak your beliefs and opinions – and everyone has the right to have an opinion or hear an opinion on any topic. ”

EPL’s collective agreement with CSU 52 set the wages of its youth pages at the minimum wage plus an additional premium (between 15% and 25%). On June 10, the EPL emailed its youth ages to tell them that it would be reducing their wages between $2.30 and $2.50 an hour because the provincial government has reduced the youth minimum wage.

Staff were told verbally not to “gossip” about this wage rollback and to direct questions or concerns directly to management. This suggests the EPL’s commitment to intellectual freedom extends only to its customers, not its employees. Despite efforts to contain news of this rollback to within the library, word got around.

Timeline and Messaging

On June 12, when queried about the rollback, the library’s talking points were essentially these:
As some background, EPL employs youth workers under 18 as Student Pages in our libraries. These positions are unionized and their wages are outlined through a letter of understanding with Civic Service Union 52. 
The Government of Alberta has instituted a new youth minimum wage of $13 per hour for students under the age of 18. This will come into effect Wednesday, June 26 and our Student Pages will be affected by it. This is because rates of pay for a Student Page are tied to the minimum wage as established by the Government of Alberta.
In short, the library sought to place responsibility for the change on the government and on the EPL’s collective agreement with CSU 52. In these talking points, the EPL appears to lack agency or choice.

In the early hours of June 13, local blogger David Climenhaga published a sharp critique of the EPL, noting that the EPL could indeed negotiate a solution that precluded a wage cut. By 8 am, the library’s talking points had shifted:
I do wish to let you know though, that EPL is currently open for bargaining with Civic Service Union 52 and through negotiations will be discussing further.
This suggests that the EPL had some choice but things are still constrained by its bargaining relationship with CSU 52 (with which it was bargaining). At this point, criticism of the EPL began to pick up on twitter, with long-time library supporters expressing shock and disappointment. Traditional media also began to ask questions. After lunch, CSU 52 then made a chippy post (since removed) about its dismay with the EPL’s behaviour.

By the afternoon, the library had reversed course. A statement on the EPL website indicated, in part:
The Edmonton Public Library (EPL) would like to acknowledge feedback we’ve received regarding our Student Page positions and the impact of recently announced changes to student minimum wage rates in Alberta. As part of our Collective Agreement with Civic Service Union 52 (CSU 52), Student Page wages are based on a premium applied to the provincial minimum wage set by the Government of Alberta. 
EPL is proud to have ongoing roles specifically for high school students under the age of 18. We value our Student Pages as evidenced by our commitment to paying a premium over the minimum wage. 
EPL will begin bargaining with CSU 52 shortly to negotiate a new Collective Agreement. Generally, changes to language contained in the Collective Agreement are done through the bargaining process which involves EPL working collaboratively with CSU 52 to make any amendments. 
Fortunately, EPL has not implemented this proposed change, and after further discussion, EPL and CSU 52 have come to an agreement to maintain current Student Page wages rates until negotiation of the new Collective Agreement is complete. As a result, there will be no changes to Student Page wages at this time ($17.25 - $18.75 per hour). 
Thank you for voicing your opinions and asking us to find a solution.
In this set of messages, the EPL is still the victim of circumstance but is now also a responsive employer that values the workers whose wages it was going to cut.

CSU then replaced its critical post with one outlining how it cooperated with the library to resolve the issue. The EPL then went on a twitter offensive, individually pushing its resolution messaging out to everyone who made a critical comment. This generated mostly praise and relief, with a few tweets querying what the library had been thinking in the first place.


Although this case relies solely on public documents, there are some conclusions we can draw. These include:

1. Intentional decision: The partial paper trail that I have seen suggests this decision was both intentional and well enough thought through that there was plan to mitigate reputational harm. In light of this, it is reasonable to conclude that the EPL decided the benefits of reducing teens’ wages (e.g., cost savings, leverage over CSU 52 at the bargaining table) outweighed the costs of acting to maintain wages.

2. Pressure worked: Concerted public pushback caused the EPL to reverse its decision about reducing youth wages. The EPL may have been particularly sensitive to reputational harm because reputation is an important asset, particularly as the EPL tries to raise money to complete the renovation of the Milner library. Whether other employers are equally vulnerable to reputational harm is an open question.

3. Incremental response: The EPL’s response changed over the course of two days from defending the change to reversing it. I would suggest the mounting criticism among library patrons and supporters caused this (eventual) reversal. Absent continued criticism, I suspect the library would not have reversed its decision but instead would have tried to communicate the problem away.

4. Inconsistent messaging: The EPL’s messaging started out claiming the EPL had little agency (caught between the union and the government). By the end, the EPL had worked out a fix. This fix was available from the get go. What was missing was the political will to achieve it.

5. All smiles: Both the EPL and CSU 52 are now touting their agreement as a good news story and CSU has revised it public statement. This “nice-nice” behaviour elides the conflict they had during the dust up.

6. Organized labour's absence: Alberta’s unions were notable absent in this push back. To be fair, they were focused on opposing Bill 9, which attacks wage settlements. But unions are large organizations that can attend to multiple problems. This was a missed opportunity for labour to support a vulnerable and sympathetic group negatively affected by government policies. This “poster-child” dynamic is important. For example, the 1995 laundry workers strike in Calgary was an important turning point in blunting Ralph Klein’s enthusiasm for further wage rollback.

-- Bob Barnetson

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