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History of OPSEU: 1980s – 1990s

History of OPSEU: 1980s – 1990s




  • President Sean O’Flynn is sentenced to 35 days in jail for his role in the illegal corrections strike. He serves the mandatory two-thirds of the sentence in the Metro West Detention Centre.
  • College support staff press Convention to establish a strike fund and a reasonable strike policy.
  • Convention establishes the Provincial Women’s Committee with a formal role in the union. As a “constitutional committee” it has elected representatives from each region and can propose resolutions and constitutional amendments to the convention. It has a mandate to enhance the role of women in the union, the workplace and society.


  • OPSEU establishes a $6-million strike fund. The chief asset of the fund is the union’s head office, then at 1901 Yonge St. in Toronto
  • Centennial College in Scarborough lays off 47 maintenance workers and contracts the work out. O’Flynn, two of the workers, OFL Secretary- Treasurer Terry Meagher and Toronto Labour Council President Wally Majesky occupy the office of Centennial’s president. After eight days the college agrees to save the jobs.


  • OPSEU wins paid parental leave for the Ontario Public Service.
  • Buoyed by a couple of arbitration wins, OPSEU takes the issue of VDT (computer terminal) safety on the road as a rallying cry for office and clerical workers. The campaign gives the union its first inroads to bargain technological change with the provincial government.
  • The government’s five-year plan to close six smaller centres for the developmentally handicapped sparks an energetic fight-back campaign that has the union speaking out for the need for solid community alternatives before the closures take effect.
  • (Right) Federal and provincial governments re-establish wage controls on public sector workers and suspend the limited bargaining rights of government workers. The Inflation Restraint Act sets a 5 per cent limit on wage hikes. OPSEU organizes a mass rally and burns Premier Bill Davis in effigy.
  • The Ontario Supreme Court rules sections of the Inflation Restraint Act that suspended bargaining rights “don’t just infringe on workers’ freedom, they emasculate it.” OPSEU rents Roy Thomson Hall for a rally of 1,500 people to celebrate. NDP Leader Bob Rae plays the piano.
  • OPSEU publishes the book Madness, by John Marshall, its second critique of the province’s system for dealing with psychiatric patients. A blistering indictment of the system, it is the result of a union-sponsored commission of inquiry which held hearings in communities around the province.
  • (Left) Women’s Conference Members
  • plan how to use collective bargaining  and the political process to advance women’s rights.


  • The courts uphold an arbitration decision which vindicates Nipigon forester Donald MacAlpine for whistleblowing. The case adds to the issues that OPSEU will take forward. The union has since campaigned vigorously for the right of public servants to blow the whistle on wrong-doing.
  • College faculty strike over quality of education on Oct. 16. In early November the government legislates them back to work with an arbitrator to rule on wages and Prof. Michael Skolnick assigned to research college educational standards. Within a year they have a settlement that makes up for pay lost during the strike and a ringing endorsement from Skolnick on their quality of education issues.
OPSEU/SEFPO first headquarters
Union’s head office, then at 1901 Yonge St. in Toronto
Union member holding sign
Rally at North Bay office of Mike Harris, a minister in the Bill Davis government.
OPSEU members conference
Women’s Conference Members plan how to use collective bargaining and the political process to advance women’s rights.
OPSEU/SEFPO president James Clancy
James Clancy, President
1985 – 1990
Three OPSEU members protesting
CML Lock Out 1988
College Faculty member on strike
“Not clowning around”  Steve Winters a striking St. Lawrence College math teacher
CAAT(S) employees on strike
CAAT on strike at Queen’s Park – 1989
Five OPSEU members protesting
Correctional Officers picket Stratford jail Feb. 9, 1989 protests against understaffing and overcrowding


  • James Clancy is elected president of the union, succeeding O’Flynn who is moving to a position at the OFL, and defeating former vice-president Ev Sammons by a six-vote margin.
  • The first Making It Public campaign takes the union’s issues into the fray of a provincial election.
  • The 40-year reign of the provincial Conservatives comes to an end with the election of a minority Liberal government supported by the NDP.
  • The National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing group, supports a $1 million lawsuit by Merv Lavigne from the Haileybury School of Mines against OPSEU. Lavigne, a malcontent during the faculty strike, claims he was forced to support causes he opposed through the union’s use of dues to support social and political movements. In 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada throws out Lavigne’s case and orders costs paid to the union.
  • OPSEU initiates a study of stress in institutions, and, backed by solid data, achieves a bargaining breakthrough for institutional care workers.


  • A Race Relations and Minority Rights Committee is created to advise the president and board on policy initiatives to encourage human rights. The committee has members from all regions of the province and all sectors of the union, and represents cultural diversity.


  • A new provincial election puts a Liberal majority in power, headed by Premier David Peterson.


  • The union wins the right to deal with local OPS managers on health and safety issues, to reach solutions geared to the local situation.
  • Convention requires the union to ensure that members from designated equity-seeking groups are represented at union educationals, and to accommodate members with disabilities.
  • OPSEU establishes a special humanitarian award, to be given annually at Convention. The first goes to Stanley Knowles, long-time CCF-NDP Member of Parliament from Winnipeg who has been a steadfast advocate of workers’ causes. The award is named in his honour.


  • (Below) For the second time, college faculty walk out on strike. Again quality of education is the key issue.
  • “Not clowning around”  Steve Winters a striking St. Lawrence College math teacher
  • Correctional Officers picket Stratford jail Feb. 9, 1989 protests against understaffing and overcrowding
  • Correctional Officers again stage a province-wide job action to protest conditions in the jails and to seek more recognition for their professionalism and the dangers of the job.
  • Air ambulance crashes at Chapleau and Pelee Island claim seven lives, including those of four OPSEU paramedics. OPSEU had been demanding an inquiry into the air ambulance system and these events finally push the issue over the edge.
  • The Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award goes to Brazilian rubber worker Chico Mendes, who was assassinated for his environmental and labour advocacy.
  • The OPS launches a campaign for pension reform, pursuing joint control over pension funds.


Management board in 1991
Lieutenant – Governor Lincoln Alexander with Frances Lankin, Ontario’s new Management Board Chair, 1991
OPSEU/SEFPO president Fred Upshaw
Fred Upshaw, President 1990 – 1995
OPSEU/SEFPO members celebrating
OPSEU President Fred Upshaw and NUPGE Secretary Treasurer Larry Brown celebrate the historic win in the Lavigne Case
OPS members reunion
OPS All-Presidents meet in 1991 barraging for a new collective agreement.
Equality by 2000! poster
Two OPSEU members writing on flip chart
OPSEU members at Native Issues seminar
OPSEU/SEPFO member at Native Issues seminar
Indian and proud
In partnership with the Native Secretariat, OPSEU stages a series of Native Issues seminars. These weekend seminars, held on reserves and Native Friendship Centres across Ontario, are led by Native facilitators. They expose union members, staff and leaders to some of the problems facing First Nations people in their efforts to achieve equity.
New OPSEU/SEFPO headquarters
Grand Opening OPSEU Head Office 100 Lesmill Road
OPSEU/SEFPO President Leah Casselman
Leah Casselman, President Elected 1995
First woman OPSEU president
During the decade, the union responds to new technology by changing its communications with members. The union’s central publication, OPSEU News, mailed to all members, is downplayed in favour of the more instantaneous “Action Fax” which is faxed to union workplaces, offices and members. More specialized publications focus on the interests of specific groups of members. Toward the end of the decade, the use of E-mail expands dramatically, as does the OPSEU website.


  • OPSEU takes a strong role in the provincial election in opposition to the Peterson Liberals. The NDP headed by
    Bob Rae is elected to government in Ontario. Former OPSEU staff negotiator Frances Lankin holds a series of key NDP cabinet posts.
  • Fred Upshaw becomes the first black person to lead a major trade union when he succeeds James Clancy, who becomes president of NUPGE. Upshaw goes on to be re-elected twice
  • South African leader Nelson Mandela receives the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award for his struggle against the evils of Apartheid


  • OPSEU negotiates a huge pay equity settlement for the Ontario Public Service.
  • The Lavigne decision finally comes down from the Supreme Court vindicating OPSEU’s strong stand as a social union, involved in a great deal more than the bread-and-butter bargaining issues of its members.
  • OPSEU adopts an employment equity policy, and becomes one of the first unions to hire a human rights officer.
  • About 80 members and staff participate in Toronto’s Caribana parade dressed as butterflies. The union also sponsors a band in the event.
  • The annual Humanitarian Award is presented to Nelson Mandela, the long-imprisoned leader of the African National Congress who becomes South Africa’s first post-apartheid prime minister.


  • OPSEU negotiates the creation of the OPSEU Pension Trust, giving OPS members control over their pensions for the first time. The new pension plan is jointly trusteed by the union and the government and members have input into how pension surpluses are used and how the fund is invested. It is the culmination of some 80 years of work.
  • The convention establishes a Provincial Human Rights Committee, to parallel the Provincial Women’s Committee. Like it, it has authority to initiate resolutions and constitutional amendments. Its mandate is to promote a wide range of human rights throughout the union.
  • Judy Rebick accepts the Humanitarian Award on behalf of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
  • OPSEU holds its first Editors’ Weekend, a three day conference of skills workshops, an awards banquet and other features to encourage local union communications. It becomes an annual event.
  • The union moves to a new head office at 100 Lesmill Road, designed and built specifically for the union. The building wins the Governor General’s Award for architecture.
  • The first conference for members in the Broader Public Service (the BPS) draws 200 delegates to talk about their specific concerns. It’s a recognition that this sector of the union is growing dramatically and has its own issues.


  • The NDP passes amendments to CECBA giving the OPS the right to strike. It also passes legislation protecting whistle-blowers, but this legislation is never proclaimed Amendments to the Public Service Act expand the political rights of government workers dramatically. The NDP fails to pass amendments to the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act to give part-timers in faculty and support staff the right to organize.
  • The first Provincial Human Rights Committee is elected, mirroring the Provincial Women’s Committee.
  • In response to growing pressure to cut its deficit, the NDP government imposes the Social Contract, which requires workers in the public sector to take unpaid “Rae Days” (named for the premier, Bob Rae) off. The process of ripping up union contracts is deeply divisive. Union members had not expected this kind of attack from an NDP government.
  • After a lengthy fight, which includes noon-hour protests at many hospitals across the province [I’m picketing for pensions!], OPSEU and other hospital unions get full involvement in their pension plan. The Hospitals of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) becomes a jointly trusteed plan, and OPSEU has a seat among the trustees.
  • Rigoberta Menchu, a leader of the fight for human rights among Guatemala’s indigenous population receives the Stanley Knowles Award. 1993 – 1994 • An initiative called Building Powerful Locals emphasizes the training of local leaders and the need for more autonomy at the local level to get more members active in the union.
  • OPSEU adopts “popular education” techniques in its education programs.


  • OPSEU starts publication of In Solidarity, a magazine for union stewards and other leaders written, edited and organized by local union members. It’s an offshoot of Building Powerful Locals, and the editorial committee is elected at the Editors’ Weekend from among local union editors.
  • The Stanley Knowles Award goes to Cesar Chavez, the long-time organizer of California farm workers.
  • After a 10-year fight, the CAAT Pension Plan is created, covering 15,000 members in the community colleges.


  • Faced with the announced closure of Thistletown Regional Centre, OPSEU launches a community campaign with support from families. After three months’ work, the decision is reversed. Thistletown remains open, serving emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children and adolescents.
  • Leah Casselman is elected OPSEU president, the first woman to hold the position, defeating three other candidates, including Fred Upshaw.
  • Election of the Mike Harris Conservatives armed with their “Common Sense Revolution” institutes huge cuts to public services and puts OPSEU on a treadmill of reaction to an onslaught of attacks. The Conservatives speed up the process of the Legislature so much it is impossible to react to all the initiatives.
  • With Bill 7, its new labour law, the Conservatives remove successor rights from OPS members.
  • Ontario black activist Bromley Armstrong receives the Humanitarian Award.
  • The Ontario Federation of Labour organizes the first of a series of community Days of Action which feature cross-picketing of workplaces by many unions, large protest marches and rallies. They involve community and church groups as well as unions, and are designed to show massive community opposition to the harsh policies of the Harris government. The first one, in London, is held Dec. 11 in bitter cold.

During the decade, the union responds to new technology by changing its communications with members. The union’s central
publication, OPSEU News, mailed to all members, is downplayed in favour of the more instantaneous “Action Fax” which is
faxed to union workplaces, offices and members. More specialized publications focus on the interests of specific groups
of members. Toward the end of the decade, the use of E-mail expands dramatically, as does the OPSEU website.


OPSEU/SEFPO President Leah Casselman speaking
Leah Casselman addresses members of Local 340 prior to strike vote.
OPSEU members voting
Strike vote at Metro Convention Centre – Toronto
Member holding sign 'It's not about the money!'
The first day of the strike
Feb. 26, 1996
No justice, no peace sign
OPSEU members protesting on winter
New Liskeard MTO yard, Ontario
OPSEU/SEFPO Trusteed Benefit Fund logo
The OPSEU Joint Trusteed Benefit Fund was launched after almost 15 years of work by OPSEU. It celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2006 with over 6,500 plan members and $27 million in annualized premiums.
International Women’s Day parade March 1996
15,000 union members gathered at Nathan Phillips Square
Day of Action in Toronto, more then 15,000 union members attended in October 1996.
  • In 1996 the OPS strikes for the first time on February 26 with 60,000 people on the picket lines. The tentative agreement was signed March 29, with members returning to work April 1.
  • For the first time, in February, the OPS strikes. The five-week walkout by 55,000 members achieves language around “reasonable efforts” in the contracting out of OPS work to mitigate the loss of successor rights. In the following years, OPSEU pushes the language to the limits to save thousands of jobs and to ensure that contracted out work is well paid. The strike is probably the first major one where cell phones play a key role, keeping 2,000 picket lines in touch with each other and allowing staff to assess what is happening across the province on an hourly basis. The union publishes a daily strike bulletin, Picket Lines.
  • The OPSEU website is launched to help with mobilizing and communications during the strike.
  • The Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award goes to Craig Kielburger, a teenage activist fighting for children’s rights around the world.
  • In September, OPSEU’s own staff strike for a second time. The strike lasts 3.5 weeks.


  • A host of arbitration awards on “reasonable efforts” thwart the Conservatives’ plans for privatization.
  • OPSEU regional meetings elect a smaller executive board, following a decision made at the previous year’s Convention. There are now three members from each region rather than four. In part, the smaller 21-member board is a reflection of the financial strain of the huge OPS strike.
  • The union endorses a strong visible presence in Toronto’s annual Gay Pride parade.
  • The Humanitarian Award is presented, posthumously, to Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian who was executed for his efforts to protect the Ogoni people.


  • A nine-week strike at Earlscourt Child and Family Centre in Toronto preserves quality care and allows the centre to attract new employees. The growth of the Broader Public Service (BPS) means more bargaining situations end up with picket lines as the union tries to achieve decent contracts with underfunded community agencies.
  • OPSEU backs a recommendation of the Chief Coroner to study the workload eat Children’s Aid Societies. CAS members have been demanding this for years.
  • OPSEU’s website becomes a vital tool for keeping members linked to the union.
  • The Queen Street Mental Health Centre, Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, Donwood Institute and Addiction Research Foundation are merged into a new Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. OPSEU, which had represented staff at all but the Clarke, wins the vote to represent everyone but the nursing staff at the new operation. Local 500 becomes OPSEU’s largest single local.
  • The Whatever It Takes campaign wins changes to Bill 136, the Tory bill on municipal and hospital amalgamations. The bill would have taken away the right to strike or arbitration on first contracts, but those issues are taken out before it is passed. Over the next six years, OPSEU and other unions engage in many Bill 136 runoff votes in hospital and ambulance sectors.


  • Staff of the Ontario Property Assessment Corporation, carved out of the Ministry of Finance, vote to keep OPSEU as their union. The organization later changes to the Municipal Property Assessment Corp., run by a board appointed by municipalities.
  • A strike vote is required to reach an OPS settlement that wins early retirement for surplused workers, speedier justice for grievances, a 50-per-cent increase in paid time off for local presidents and the first wage increase in six years.
  • The 2,100 members of the Association of Allied Health Professionals: Ontario join OPSEU to form the leading health care union in Ontario. This is the first time another union has merged with OPSEU.
  • OPSEU launches the Network for Better Contracts, which has a focus on bargaining, contract enforcement and public policy work to support members’ workplace needs. It includes a staff realignment along sectoral lines to better serve the union’s increasingly diversified membership.
  • OPSEU spends $1 million on the provincial election in an effort to defeat the provincial Conservatives through “strategic voting.” The Tories are reelected, but OPSEU-supported candidates win in 16 of 24 target ridings.
  • The Conservatives start talking about a private mega-jail for Penetanguishene and the fight is on as OPSEU organizes to stop the privatization at the community level, within the corrections ministry and through a wide range of public events.
  • A first contract is bargained for Local 274 at the Hamilton-Wentworth Community Care Access Centre as OPSEU moves into a new area of organizing. The CCACs are at the centre of an emerging crisis in home care as the government mandates them to contract work to the lowest bidder. This puts non-profit agencies with decent staff relations at a disadvantage compared to profitmaking corporations that cut pay to gain contracts.
  • The Provincial Ombudsman agrees with OPSEU that Tory downsizing and cost-cutting is burning out staff, leaving them stressed and helpless to deal with endless lineups. The Tories have cut 18,000 civil service jobs in four years.
  • Staff at the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario strike for a first contract.
  • The security staff at Metro Toronto Housing Authority strike for a week and achieve breakthroughs in working conditions and quality of life. Their local website is a major mobilizer and the group has terrific support from housing authority tenants. They do well in the settlement.
OPSEU/SEFPO members at Kingston
Pathways strikers Local 460 Kingston
Muchtar Pakpahan
Indonesian labour leader Muchtar Pakpahan receives OPSEU’s Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award from Jean-Claude Parrot of the Canadian Labour Congress at an International Labour Organization (ILO) conference
OPSEU says no to Tory agenda
1998 Days of Action OPSEU members rally in Kitchener
Ontario strikers
Art Gallery of Ontario workers fight back two-tier wage system.
Shirley Douglas awarded
1999 Convention Shirley Douglas accepts the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award on behalf of her father  T.C. Douglas Leah Casselman (left) and Len Hupet, First Vice-President

History of OPSEU: 2000 – 2008