"75% Women, 50% Part-Time": Contesting Austerity and Hard-Right Populism During the Toronto Public Library Workers' Union Strike (2012)

Authors: Lia Frederiksen*, University of Toronto
Topics: Social Geography, Economic Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: public libraries, labor unions, public space, social reproduction, Toronto
Session Type: Paper


The Toronto Public Library (TPL) is the biggest and busiest public library system in the world. In winter 2012, a TPL Workers’ Union (TPLWU) strike closed all of the city’s then- 98 public libraries for eleven days. The strike experienced widespread public support, in part because the TPLWU presented its 2400 members as defenders of this exceptionally popular – and vitally important – public service. The strike slogan “75% Women, 50% Part-Time” aimed to draw public attention to the distinctly gendered and increasingly precarious composition of the TPL’s workforce. This paper evaluates the TPLWU strike in the events that led up to it: decades of austerity at all scales of governance in Canada, and a recent surge of conservative populism in municipal politics. Notably, the TPLWU strike occurred mere weeks after a successful citywide campaign to resist library closures proposed in an intensely disputed city budget. This paper evaluates these events through geographers’ insights into struggles over urban space, labor organizing, and public service provision. To a great degree, the TPLWU strike’s significance lies in the ways it mobilized an exceptionally widespread and unusually heterogeneous alliance between labor and local residents. I argue that this case illustrates that public libraries can be a pivotal site for contesting austerity and right-wing populism because they are ordinary public spaces for social reproduction.

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