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History of OPSEU: 1910s – 1970s

History of OPSEU: 1910s – 1970s


This point-form history of OPSEU highlights the union’s development from 1911 to 1979, from its beginnings as the Civil Service Association of Ontario (CSAO) up to when OPSEU agrees to affiliate with NUPGE and with it the CLC, the Ontario Federation of Labour and local labour councils.


History of OPSEU: Collage


  • The Civil Service Association of Ontario is created as a coal-buying cooperative and social club and to discuss ways of improving the civil service. About 200 attend the initial meeting. Women are not invited. They agree to get the government’s approval before proceeding further. The provincial government then had about 1,000 employees. Salaries were set by the Lieutenant Governor. Pay increased with service, and long-term employees got first crack at promotions. There was no overtime. Ministers could fine staff up to $20 for misbehaviour. There was no appeal. There was no retirement age. A pension of one month’s salary a year was granted to old-timers let go for ill health and widows of career officials.


  • Delegation from CSAO meets Premier Whitney to talk about pensions. They also want shorter summer hours to start in June rather than July.

1914 – 1918

  • The First World War dominates everything.


  • Inflation during the war years puts pay on CSAO’s agenda. Working through “channels” achieves a $360 bonus for the lowest-paid workers. Single men and women get half that. Those making more than $3,000 get nothing. CSAO relates to the government through letters to cabinet and meetings with the premier, not negotiations


  • CSAO refuses to join a national civil service federation because it looked too militant.
  • Government introduces retirement at age 70 on a week’s pay for every year of service. Widows get half that amount.
  • A job classification system is developed for the OPS during the decade. Pay rates overwhelmingly favour men.


  • CSAO stops using government letterhead and starts publishing the Civil Service Review.


  • CSAO incorporates. That incorporation is one reason that, even today, OPSEU has annual conventions, compared to the biennial ones of most unions. CSAO also runs the government parking lot and the cafeteria in Toronto and sells gas at a discount to members.


  • CSAO asks the government for a grievance system, but doesn’t get it.


  • The Great Depression leaves anyone with a job feeling pretty lucky. Ontario civil servants accept wage rollbacks to retain their jobs as the country goes through an economic upheaval.

1939 – 1945

  • The Second World War sees a huge influx of women into the workplace and non-traditional jobs as the men join up to serve overseas.


Prime Minister George Drew
1944 – Members of the first Joint Advisory Council with Prime Minister George Drew (seated)

Unions make major inroads in the private sector. Industrial unions representing all the workers in an enterprise (like the Autoworkers or Steelworkers) make gains over craft unions which represent specific skilled trades (like sheet metal workers, printers, or cigar makers).


  • The Tory government introduces a classification system based on merit. In practice this means typing tests for secretaries; pay rates are “because I say so, chum!” New week, paid vacations and improved workers’ compensation.
  • CSAO asks for equal representation on the Civil Service Commission – the first request for a structured relationship based on equality. CSAO is now bargaining over pay and appointments, but does not define itself as a union – rather as something to keep “radical unions” out of the public service. The government likes this arrangement.
  • The Teaching Professions Act makes membership in teachers’ associations mandatory [as it was for doctors and lawyers] and in effect creates mandatory unionism and dues for this “professional” group, but the civil service gets none of it.
  • A Joint Advisory Council (JAC) is created to discuss workplace issues in principle. A new appeal board, chaired by the Minister of Labour with reps from CSAO and the premier’s office, hears appeals from workers who have been punished. This is not a grievance system as there is no contract to be violated. Pay is still set by Cabinet.


  • Mr. Justice Ivan Rand, later chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, crafts a landmark compromise that resolves a bitter strike at Ford’s Windsor plant. Under the “Rand Formula,” all workers covered by a collective agreement must pay dues to the union, although they do not have to join the organization. This gives unions financial security, and acknowledges that all workers benefit from the gains bargained by the union and should therefore contribute. It ends “free-riders” who take what the union negotiates but refuse to pay their share. This contributes greatly to labour peace and eases workplace tension. Other unions quickly adopt the Rand Formula as a contract demand and it becomes the norm in Canada over the years. CSAO does not get this until 1969.


  • CSAO hires its first paid staffer and rents a small room on Bay Street as its office. It also joins the Canadian Council of Provincial Employee Associations, where it is the only provincial section that does not sign on with the Trades and Labour Congress, which was a national labour body that later merged with another organization to create today’s Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).


  • A new Public Service Act makes 65 the retirement age and gives deputy ministers the right to fire workers. It introduces the Oath of Secrecy and a prohibition against political activity.


Harold Bowen, Civil Service Association of Ontario president
CSAO President Harold Bowen (center) poses with the new logo of the Civil Service Association of Ontario.
Civil Service Association of Ontario members
1959 – CSAO members demonstrate for the right to negotiate.


  • Faced with a government refusal to meet with paid CSAO staff present, the organization’s board resigns and an emergency meeting votes to join the Trades and Labour Congress. The bluff works, and the moribund JAC starts meeting again, although decisions are still made in the premier’s office.


  • The civil service moves to a five-day week; employees get four weeks’ holiday after 25 years’ service.
  • CSAO gets a new head office – a 10-room house on Isabella St. Tory Premier Leslie Frost, a major donor to the building fund, cuts the ribbon. New CSAO logo features the trillium and the motto: Modern, Loyal, Efficient.


  • CSAO goes broke after investing in a rather splendid club house. The executive and the entire staff of three resign. Harold Bowen leads a slate of officers who take over and nurture CSAO into an independent labour organization. He will be a dominant force in the organization for two decades. (Bowen was president 1953 to 1957 and held executive secretary, general manager and chief negotiator positions between 1958 and 1972.)


  • 85 per cent of civil servants have joined CSAO. Dues are doubled to $6 a month.


  • Bowen forces the JAC to recognize CSAO as the organization representing civil servants. “Bargaining” consists of briefs to the premier, not demands tabled with managers.


  • The Civil Service Commission stops discriminating against married women in employment. Within two years, the proportion of women in the OPS who are married reaches 50 per cent, up from 10 per cent. They start demanding equal pay.
  • The Annual General Meeting (the precursor to today’s annual Convention) amends CSAO’s charter to spell out a full range of union functions. CSAO sets up a grievance committee.


  • Bowen becomes General Manager and pushes for bargaining instead of arbitration.
  • A large emergency meeting at the King Edward Hotel has delegates demanding rights. Members are unhappy with pay offers from Queen’s Park.


  • CSAO makes a militant push for bargaining rights, a grievance system and higher pay.
  • The JAC gets its first permanent secretary. A Public Service Grievance Board is created to hear appeals of management decisions. It also hears appeals of dismissals and discipline. This is a response to the organization’s show of militancy.


Archive picture
Women Protest
No more delay pay
Queen’s Park Health Demonstration
Civil Service Association members
1964 Executive – Civil Service Association of Ontario


  • Canadian Federation of Government Employee Organizations (CFGEO or “C.F. George”) succeeds the earlier Canadian Council of Provincial Employee Associations and is equally ineffective. It dies in 1972.


  • The provincial government creates a separate Department of the Civil Service.
  • CSAO ends its co-operative buying function to focus on bargaining efforts.


  • Changes to the Public Service Act replace the JAC with an Ontario Joint Council with four reps from CSAO and four from government to “negotiate” matters on its agenda, with arbitration should they fail to agree. The changes also tighten the screws on political activity.
  • The politicians insist that senior managers no longer belong to CSAO. The organization is starting to become a grouping of front-line workers.
  • Miffed by a low arbitration settlement and delays in processing raises, truck inspectors in Toronto- Hamilton hold a three-day work-to-rule that snarls traffic and produces a four-per-cent raise. Members are starting to get a taste of direct action to achieve contract goals.


  • Federal NDP leader David Lewis is featured speaker at the CSAO convention. This is a big step toward developing a political identity. Doubled dues allow the organization to hire researchers, educators and grievance officers.


  • CSAO registers as a union with the Ontario Labour Relations Board enabling it to organize in the private sector.
  • When the old Provincial Institute of Trades is moved to the new community colleges, CSAO organizes support staff in the college system. Most of them had been CSAO members as part of the government workforce. The far-flung college system poses new challenges and marks the end of running the whole union operation out of Toronto. It also forces CSAO to deal with more than one employer.


  • CSAO beats out CUPE to represent staff at the Niagara Parks Commission – newly independent from the Civil Service – and negotiates its first ever collective agreement. At this point there is still no formal collective agreement for the OPS members
  • Agriculture department staff, transferred to the University of Guelph, rejoin CSAO and wind up on strike – CSAO’s first, and the first for any Ontario university. They strike again in 1969. Despite student support, this one goes badly and the group later leaves CSAO.
  • The North Bay CSAO branch takes the first equal pay case to the Human Rights Commission demanding equal pay for nurses to male attendants in the psychiatric hospital. They lose.


  • The first contract for college support staff is signed.
  • The province takes over county jails, and CSAO moves in to take over those guards from CUPE. CSAO has always represented the staff of provincial “reform institutions.” This strengthens the correctional group in the union.


  • The government acts on a key report by Judge Walter Little and excludes managers, professionals and confidential staff from CSAO. CSAO gets dues check-off for all members and new hires. The dues check-off does not mean these people have to become members of the organization, but it ensures a degree of financial stability to the organization by ensuring they pay dues. In effect, it brings the Rand Formula to the OPS.
  • CSAO stops operating the Queen’s Park cafeteria (after 42 years) and cancels recreational activities and the annual Christmas choir concert to focus on bargaining.
  • CSAO staff unionizes.
  • CSAO organizes its first group of “hospital paramedics” – technologists at Peterborough Civic Hospital. This forms the basis for a group initially known as the OLRA division, and now the Broader Public Service (BPS). It was the start of major organizing among hospital workers, now called “hospital professionals” to avoid confusion with ambulance workers.


Full and free bargaining for Government Employees
Free Servants Rally
Phone operators taking donations
Free Servants Telethon linked CSAO members across the province 
OPSEU/SEFPO president Charlie Darrow
Charlie Darrow President 1975 – 1978
OPSEU logo in the seventies
The new union gets a new logo
Stronger together
Women’s Caucus Region 5 – 1975
OPSEU 1992 Hockey Cup
OPSEU First Vice-President Ev Sammons presents the OPSEU Cup May 1992 at Maple Leaf Gardens Peewee Hockey Championship.
In this decade, OPSEU organizing moves into the ambulance sector. Further organizing takes the union to Children’s Aid Societies, Associations for Community Living, school boards and child treatment centres. This new “OLRA” group brings fresh ideas to the union. It isn’t an organization that they inherited, that has always been part of their workplace; it’s something they have gone out and organized because they need workplace representation.


  • Changes to the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA) require 65 per cent card signing for an automatic certification – producing more bitter organizing drives.
  • CSAO organizes community college faculty.
  • CSAO now has 325 “branches” (not locals) that include all government workers in an area, regardless of occupation, ministry or worksite. Branch members have little in common and can do little collectively about problems they do share. Branches, in effect, are low-level social clubs.


  • The Board fires Bowen, leaving CSAO without its top leader. A special general meeting re-instates him, but only for the seven months until he reaches 65.
  • Passage of the Crown Employees Collective Bargaining Act (CECBA) happens while CSAO is busy with its own internal crisis. The law includes 21 non-negotiable management rights including pensions and most workplace rules. All disputes are to be settled by arbitration. There is no incentive for the union, its leaders, or its members to take direct responsibility for bargaining.
  • CSAO begins its campaign for CECBA reform, which is to last 20 years


  • In February, CSAO staff strike (illegally), essentially in support of the General Manager. Ordered to return to work or be fired, 14 cross picket lines and 36 are fired. A handful of the fired are reinstated because they supported the organizational changes, if not the means used to initiate them. The staff strike and the firings create a break in institutional culture and open the way for major changes.
  • Jake Norman is hired as General Manager.


  • Free the Servants campaign takes the first serious run at CECBA, at cost of $600,000. CSAO demands the right to strike and political freedom for civil servants. It’s high profile, public and flashy.


  • (Right) The organization makes the change complete and becomes the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). A new democratic structure has Convention delegates elect the president for the first time. They choose Charles Darrow. The vice-president/treasurer’s job becomes full time, and the seven-region structure is written into the new constitution. In a move to assert membership control of the union, the board abolishes the position of general manager. Jake Norman, prime architect of the new OPSEU, is gone.
  • (right) The new union gets a new logo, a stylized trillium enclosed in a triangle formed of three lines – which don’t meet at the bottom. The lines are said to represent the three sectors of the union – the OPS, the colleges and the broader public service. The lines won’t meet until the union gains the full right to strike for OPS members. The slogan Modern, Loyal, Efficient is gone.
  • (Right) A group of women activists in Region 5 start meeting informally as the Region 5 Women’s Caucus. It’s the precursor of the Provincial Women’s Committee.
  • Federal Wage and Price Controls (the Anti-Inflation Board) put the brakes on new bargaining strength and strategies. The program lasts three years.
  • Government implementation of the “Henderson Report” starts the mania for cutbacks and contracting out. First up: 1,000 jobs. Highway sanding and plowing are to be contracted out, psychiatric hospitals in Goderich and Timmins closed, four health labs sold to private sector, 2,000 hospital beds closed. OPSEU responds quickly with community campaigns involving interest groups, the Ontario Federation of Labour, churches and social workers.

1975 – 1980

  • The number of government jobs is cut from 87,000 to 80,000.
OPSEU/SEFPO President Sean O'Flynn
Sean O’Flynn  President 1978 – 1985
OPSEU members on strike in the snow
CAAT Support Strike for the first time: Northern College, Kirkland Lake January 1979
OPSEU on strike
In a first province-wide illegal strike, Dec. 3 to 5, Correctional Officers walk out in a demand for a separate bargaining category
OPSEU members protesting
On their third try, women convince the Convention to outlaw sexual harassment throughout the union.


  • National Union of Provincial Government Employees (NUPGE) is formed as a vehicle for provincial government employee unions to affiliate with the CLC. Six provincial unions join. OPSEU does not, and as a result is expelled from the CLC.
  •  CECBA amendments give the right to negotiate job classification, promotions and layoffs, and members get “successor rights” – the right to carry the union with them if they are transferred to jobs in the private sector or broader public service. CSAO can now nominate representatives to the Public Service Labour Relations Tribunal and the Grievance Settlement Board.
  • The Women’s Caucus becomes more formal.


  • Occupational Health and Safety becomes a major issue for the union. Huge effort goes into making sure government employees are covered by a new Health and Safety Act.
  • Women convince the union to create the position of Equal Opportunities Coordinator reporting directly to the president. The first person in the job is communications officer Neil Louttit, who wisely recommends his successor be a woman. It was – Debbie Field.


  • Sean O’Flynn is elected president, defeating Charlie Darrow by six votes.
  • OPSEU organizes staff at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The union wins 13 cases of unfair labour practice against the gallery in its fight for a first contract. It’s the union’s first move into the cultural sector.
  • Convention supports equal pay for work of equal value and agrees to pay child care for all union meetings.


  • OLRA changes make things better for unions
  • OPSEU agrees to affiliate with NUPGE and with it the CLC, the Ontario Federation of Labour and local labour councils. It has joined “the house of labour”
  • (Right) OPSEU experiences its first province-wide strike – college support staff walk off the job in mid- January. The lack of experience shows, and the union is quick to over-ride its own strike policy and institute strike pay immediately – not after three weeks. The strike ends after 13 days with facesaving improvements. It is a recognition strike by clerical workers and pays off handsomely in the following round of bargaining.
  • Halton-Mississauga Ambulance workers strike for six weeks in the summer for wage parity with ambulance officers employed by the province. OPSEU pursues central bargaining for ambulance workers.
  • (Right) In a first province-wide illegal strike, Dec. 3 to 5, Correctional Officers walk out in a demand for a separate bargaining category (separate from institutional care workers). The resolution is an arbitrated settlement in which Corrections gets its separate group and OPSEU agrees to no new categories until 1982. In the subsequent round of bargaining, COs get a 27 per cent increase.
  • On their third try, women convince the Convention to outlaw sexual harassment throughout the union

History of OPSEU: 2000 – 2008

History of OPSEU: 1980s – 1990s