The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)

The province’s largest public-sector union

Founded upon the origins of the Civil Service Association of Ontario 105 years ago, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)was established in 1975 and represents about 130,000 members with more than 500 bargaining units throughout Canada’s most populous province. OPSEU is affiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).

Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas has served as president of the union since 2007 following the retirement of Leah Casselman. At the age of 64, Thomas has committed to running for one final two-year term in 2017.

The Canadian Business Journal recently had the opportunity to speak with Thomas, an outgoing, friendly individual who clearly holds a tremendous amount of passion for the work he does. The ascension of his career can be traced back to 1970 when he applied for a job at the former Ontario Hospital – Kingston. He was hired to work in the psychiatric ward in the mornings while taking afternoon classes to become a registered nursing assistant.

“I really enjoyed the work,” Thomas recalls. “I liked working with patients and being involved with mental health.”

By 1984 Thomas became an OPSEU union steward and sat on a committee that was introducing an employee assistance program. Soon thereafter he found himself in the position acting vice president and then president of his local union. In 1993 Thomas successfully ran for a position on OPSEU’s executive board. He also served as Treasurer of the organization for six years, which afforded him the opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts on the money side.

As an individual who was raised from humble beginnings, Thomas makes it a point to never forget his roots and it is no doubt one of the primary reasons why he is widely regarded by colleagues as a members’ president. He lists his mother and former politician Tommy Douglas as two of his greatest inspirations.

“Tommy Douglas really is the father of Medicare. He had the foresight and determination to go for something he believed in, so that always impressed me. And, I’m one of seven kids and my mother always taught me to work hard. She worked two jobs and set an excellent example for us. She just turned 90 this past summer and is still doing very well. My father died when I was in my 20s so she struggled on for many years without him. She was always the glue that held the family together.”

With 21 offices and a staff of 350, OPSEU has a solid reputation of providing excellent service to its members. The activist base within the union is thoroughly engaged in social issues and they are staunch advocates for social justice, including income equality, tackling the scourge of racism and providing opportunities to people who can’t take care of themselves.

“Nothing in life is perfect, including unions, but my first responsibility is to the membership; they pay the bills. I take the job very seriously. If you give good service to the members they’ll afford you the luxury to get into other causes,” says Thomas.

Upon taking the president’s chair a decade ago Thomas says there were a few things that took him by surprise, including the incredibly high volume of work that makes its way through the office. “My executive assistant had a great deal of experience in a number of areas and he knew how to build tracking systems, and that helped cut the manual workload down considerably.”

In creating a unified team to work closely with on matters of critical importance it became Thomas’s plan to assemble the most intelligent, robust management team possible. Among other things he is credited with spearheading the revamping efforts of the organization’s internal structures, such as IT, websites, and having the union become more engaged in social media platforms as a means of communicating core messages out to a much wider audience.

“I want people who are smarter than me and I want people who will tell me what I need to hear – not what I want to hear. The management team I have today is second to none. The 21 board members were all elected. We’ve had some good boards in my time, but this one is exceptionally good,” he says.

While Thomas is elected at conventions to represent OPSEU’s membership he is also in fact the organization’s chief executive.

“My management style is to always be fair, firm and friendly. That’s what you want in a manager,” he says. “I’ve always been the kind of person to offer help first. I truly believe the discipline isn’t to punish, but rather to correct.”

In addition to his leadership role at OPSEU, Thomas also serves as a keynote speaker at Queen’s University in Kingston four or five times per year where he discusses mediation and arbitration, following the lead of a legendary man in this domain named Warren Winkler. Thomas speaks at other colleges and grade schools, time permitting. He also has the impressive distinction of being the only labour leader to have ever spoken at the prestigious Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, having done so in the fall of 2015.

Identifying and Correcting Problems

Empathy is a trait that Thomas has shown numerous times throughout his career. He long ago came to realize that when employee productivity declines it is quite often due to problems at home. In order to better deal with sensitive domestic issues OPSEU established a training regimen for senior management about 18 months ago as a means to better educate them on how to identify problem employees, not with a view to punish, but rather to better understand the root problem and by extension take the necessary corrective measures.

“I believe in trying to help a person. If we can help somebody with their life’s problems, 99.9% of the time they are grateful and become a better employee, so it’s a win-win,” says Thomas.

Social mapping exercises have proven to be very fruitful through surveys and questionnaires. OPSEU is very progressive in constantly updating policies on harassment discrimination in the workplace. More than 30% of the membership responded to a substantive survey, which was more than enough feedback to provide a gauge to work from and develop strategies moving forward.

“It was a big undertaking and it was quite expensive but we learned a lot from it. We constantly work on upgrading. We’ve done videos around gossip and sexual harassment in the workplace. The Ministry of Labour asked for them and other unions are now making use of them,” Thomas proudly says.

OPSEU is exceptionally active on a number of fronts at any given time with about 40 campaigns currently on the go covering a wide variety of occupations. The union represents everything from district school board workers and maintenance workers to scientists and lawyers. The union does a tremendous amount of lobbying and campaigning on many issues including Children’s Aid and developmental services. On a global scale, the tried-and-true policies at the union have been established as a proven benchmark, with the Human Rights Commission having stated that OPSEU is light years ahead of any other organization in terms of addressing many of the serious and sensitive issues that exist in society.

“We sponsor many things around the world such as providing money to the Stephen Lewis Foundation for HIV/AIDS work in South Africa. We’ve sponsored to build wells in Malawi. We also have a social justice fund and an international solidarity fund,” reveals Thomas.

We Own It!

We Own It! is an ambitious community organizing campaign meant to push all political parties to abandon privatization altogether. Unlike other campaigns the union has mounted, We Own It! is designed around the idea that individual, face-to-face conversations are the most effective way to garner strong and long-lasting public support.

An exceptionally active research department at OPSEU has led to the determination that privatization is not in the best interests of Ontarians. On November 14 the organization officially launched the We Own It! campaign, which essentially says that public services should be for people, not profit.

“I’m not opposed to the private sector making money, but I am opposed to public services being cannibalized so the private sector can make money,” remarks Thomas. “The biggest thing we fight is the contracting out of public services – these public-private partnerships.”

Privatization of public services has become a global phenomenon and it’s something Thomas and OPSEU are vehemently against. The OPSEU team proposed a five-point plan to the provincial government that would determine whether a public-private partnership scenario was warranted, but the dialogue from the government’s side has been next to non-existent.

“(Deputy Ontario Premier) Deb Matthews and (Ontario Premier) Kathleen Wynne told me about two and a half years ago that within two weeks they were going to show me the proof and the evidence that privatization saves the taxpayers money and provides better services. Well, I’ve never gotten the evidence, because it doesn’t generally save the taxpayers money,” replies Thomas.

In mid-November OPSEU released polling data that shows the vast majority of Ontarians are opposed to the privatization of public services. The Ipsos Reid survey found just 25% of respondents now support public-private partnerships when pursuing infrastructure development in Canada. It’s likely no coincidence that the drastic 45% drop in support came soon after the auditor general’s report revealed that in the past decade such deals have resulted in $8 billion in extra costs for the province of Ontario.

Thomas says he is nonpartisan when it comes to politics and is not a member of any party, noting that there are people in all three of the mainstream parties whose opinion he respects and corresponds with on a regular basis. In fact, he believes one of the fundamental problems with Ontario’s labour movement is that there is far too much partisan politics. “I think if we could get behind issues rather than partisan politics we’d make a lot more progress.”

Protecting Workers’ and Citizens’ Rights

Representing 7,500 LCBO workers, OPSEU recently signed a breakthrough deal with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the province to make “equal pay for equal work” a reality for thousands of LCBO Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). The agreement arose from the union’s complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. OPSEU quite rightly asserted that the LCBO’s pay structure for CSRs in its stores and depots discriminated against workers in the female-dominated “casual” classification.

“This agreement shows that working people, working together, can challenge the trend towards precarious work and win. I am intensely proud of our members and our union. This agreement can serve as a model for all employers and unions to emulate,” notes Thomas.

Another hot-button topic for Ontarians has been the skyrocketing costs of hydro. Despite not being known by a sizable percentage of the general public, the vast majority of funding to battle the provincial government’s privatization of Hydro One has come from OPSEU. Some have wondered why the union would invest so heavily in a sector where they have no direct representation. Thomas sums it up this way. “I tell people to think about this – 82% of people in Ontario oppose selling off Hydro One – and yet they’re doing it. If we lose the hydro fight, where do you suppose any other public service will stack up in terms of trying to garner public support? Thankfully, I think we’re making headway.”

Thomas and OPSEU can take a lion’s share of the credit for bringing this contentious matter to the public forefront, which ultimately resulted in Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s admission that she made a colossal mistake regarding hydro, which has led to Ontarians paying much higher rates.

The future at OPSEU looks bright. Thomas and his union just finished the largest organizing drive in Canada’s history, for college support staff part-timers. It’s somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000 depending on whether you use OPSEU’s numbers or management’s. Additionally, OPSEU has just launched faculty academic in the colleges, which will be at least as large.

“I would love to see those two drives come to a successful conclusion where we get to organize those part-time workers and start the process of making their working lives better. I would like to expand even more into fighting for social justice and equality and want to see more in work on poverty reduction strategies,” says Thomas. “We don’t want to pick fights. We’d much rather solve problems.”