On December 18, 2023, U of T’s librarians received what seems like an early Christmas present — a negotiated settlement that saw increased job security and improvements in working conditions. 

The settlement marks the culmination of six years’ worth of negotiations between the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) and the university’s Governing Council and a broader, decades-long fight to improve librarians’ contractual rights. 

The settlement also marks the first time that U of T has updated its Policies for Librarians (PFL) since the policies’ establishment in 1978. It would seem that these updates are long overdue. “Academic libraries are dynamic and constantly evolving in response to changes in technology, education, research practices, changing societal perspectives and user needs,” wrote Harriet Sonne de Torrens, chair of the UTFA Librarians Committee, to The Varsity

The long fight 

The UTFA Librarians Committee has been looking into how their employment terms compare to librarians at other Canadian universities since 2006, as part of their quest to improve their working terms, Sonne de Torrens wrote.

By 2021, U of T librarians secured some key victories under the leadership of UTFA Lead Negotiator Kathleen Scheaffer. These victories included updating three documents: Principles for Consultation, which Sonne de Torrens noted made the process of amending annual performance assessments more “collegial;” an updated vacation policy; and an agreement on professional development days that defined, for the first time, what constitutes librarians’ “research days” — activities that can include self-directed research, workshops, and conferences. 

At the same time, many of the UTFA’s negotiations with U of T were still ongoing, and not just over the PFL. University librarians’ employment terms are enshrined in a bundle of disparate agreements. Part of this is the result of how vast U of T’s library system is, covering 40 libraries across three campuses and hundreds of student programs. But this lack of centralized labour terms also paints a scattergun picture of U of T’s approach to collective negotiations with the UTFA. 

New contract and terms of agreement

The December negotiations updated four other agreements impacting librarians’ working terms, in addition to the PFL: the Letter of Understanding on Secondments for Librarians, Contractually Limited Term Appointments (CLTA) Librarians, Research and Study Leave, and Article 4 of the Memorandum of Understanding.

Sonne de Torrens noted that general improvements to the agreements include “greater clarity and consistency” across existing policies, more transparency for hiring and promotions, “decreased precarity of employment,” and “new language enshrining a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Regarding transparency, the PFL guarantees a new appeals process for some librarians who make complaints about being denied promotions. The process applies to librarians in ranks two and three — ranks corresponding to librarians’ probationary or permanent status, as well as the university’s assessment of their professional accomplishments.

The updated terms of employment also give all librarians more room to diversify their experience by allowing them to apply for secondment placements — where they temporarily work elsewhere in the library system — and extending their research and study leave to be equivalent with university faculty. 

The PFL has also improved job security across the board. The university can no longer cite ‘financial exigency’ or ‘fiscal stringency’ in justification for terminating employed librarians’ contracts — loosely-defined terms relating to the university’s financial state that the 1978 PFL allowed the administration to use as reasoning for termination. 

CLTA librarians who were previously in precarious employment will enjoy more secure terms. Following the settlement, rank three and four Scholars Portal Librarians with at least three years of continuous service will automatically be granted a recurring term appointment, ending the “contract to contract” nature that has fed a sense of precariousness in their employment. Other Scholars Portal Librarians are now entitled to know whether or not their contract will be renewed at least three months before their existing contract term ends. 

All Scholars Portal Librarians on CLTAs will now have the right to apply for permanent positions, while their CLTA service time must be considered in their application. They will also get an increase in severance pay.

Furthermore, the Ontario Superior Court’s decision to strike down Ontario’s Bill 124 in November 2022, which restricted public sector pay rises to one per cent per year, has since allowed the UTFA to negotiate across-the-board salary increases of eight per cent for UTFA members, faculty, and librarians. 

Insight into the role of U of T librarians

According to Sonne de Torrens, these improvements in employment security and pay are long overdue and reflect the sheer volume of work that U of T requires from its librarians. Maintaining all of U of T’s collections — more than 12 million volumes in 341 languages, with over 31,000 linear meters of archival material, in excess of 150,000 new print volumes acquired annually, and housing more than 500 servers with a combined storage capacity of 1.5 petabytes — is no mean feat. “The specialized knowledge and skills of the UofT academic librarians maintain, develop, and sustain these dynamic and vital collections for the University’s teaching and research missions,” she wrote.

Although these new terms close the latest chapter on negotiations, Sonne de Torrens emphasized that employment terms must remain a live issue. It has taken 45 years to update librarians’ policies in response to the continuously evolving role of research, teaching, and academic librarianship at U of T — and that was too long.

“We can’t let this happen again!” Sonne de Torrens emphasized.

Editor’s note (March 13, 2024): a previous version of this article stated that in December 2023, U of T librarians received a negotiated settlement which included a “retroactive pay rise, increased job security, and improvements in working conditions”. Whilst the latter two items were part of the settlement, the retroactive pay rise actually came about separately as a result of Article 6 bargaining.