I’d join OPSEU again in a heartbeat
We’ve never looked back.
The Northern Ontario School of Medicine hired its first faculty in 2004 and accepted its first students the following year. The School has campuses in both Thunder Bay and Sudbury, with another 70 teaching sites across Northern Ontario. It serves as the faculty of medicine for both Lakehead and Laurentian Universities, and is the first new medical school in Canada since the 1960s.
I teach the history of medicine and I coordinate a seven-week module in which students are required to spend four weeks in Aboriginal communities – the only such program in the world for a medical school. I have two degrees from McMaster University, a doctorate from Oxford and I’ve done post-doctoral work at University College in London, England.
At various times, I’ve been active in academic unions, and I was the only faculty member here with that experience, so I was called on.
We’re a different kind of local for OPSEU, the first with university faculty. Academic freedom is critical for us, and can only be enforced via arbitration. You can’t be free to teach what you think is important and do the necessary research unless you have that protection. Unionization has been crucial in the last four decades in securing quality of education in Canada’s universities.
At first, we created a Faculty Association in 2005 and certified a full time bargaining unit which includes librarians, and a number of professional staff. I became chief negotiator for our first collective agreement, but we didn’t have the money to enforce the contract because arbitration is expensive.
I was sent to a Canadian Labour Congress arbitration school in Cornwall, thinking maybe we could do it ourselves. That led to talks with people from other unions, and I found they had a variety of ways of defending their contracts.
OPSEU seemed to have the best approach – a central fund to pay for arbitrations. We discussed it and decided to pursue joining OPSEU. I went to Toronto and called OPSEU’s organizing department. Would they see me? They said, absolutely!
We talked it through for several hours and sketched out a draft transfer agreement on the spot; then I went back and talked to my colleagues. They wanted to look at other options, so we looked at a number of other unions. In the end, we decided on OPSEU because the transfer agreement recognized our circumstances and gave us what we needed as university faculty. We’ve retained the faculty association, which includes part-time non-unionized faculty and the non-union physicians.
We’re not a typical union group.
We wanted to continue our links with the Canadian Association of University Teachers. OPSEU already has a connection with CAUT for its college faculty members, and agreed to support our continued membership, so that worked well.
We have a unique collective agreement, unlike any others in OPSEU, and it was agreed we would do our own bargaining with an OPSEU negotiator as a welcome advisor and support.
OPSEU respected our local autonomy and provided strong support in terms of staff and resources. We’ve been through two rounds of bargaining with OPSEU and our contract is improving.
In 2009, the support and technical staff of the School of Medicine also joined OPSEU and became a second bargaining unit in our local.
We have 28 faculty group members and about 120 support and technical members. Our meetings are held through telephone or video conferencing. We never gather in one place because the distances between our workplaces are just too great.
The support with grievances has been absolutely key. Without grievance arbitration, you can get run over. Unique among unions in Ontario, OPSEU has a central grievance arbitration fund that pays for all costs associated with arbitrations. Wow! We now have deeper pockets than our employer! And this has encouraged the employer to solve difficulties, which is in everyone’s interest.
We’ve found that OPSEU is democratic, that it supports local autonomy on what matters – negotiations and grievances. We get all the financial and staff support we need to achieve better working conditions. We run our own affairs in our own Local. OPSEU is there if we need it, and does a good job for us.
I’d join OPSEU again in a heartbeat; we’ve never looked back.
We know we have the union’s backing when we need it
I am a Research Analyst at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. I spent 10 years on the CAMH health and safety committees.
Workplace violence is consistently reported by staff and has produced the largest number of critical incidents as defined under the Ontario Health and Safety Act. In 2007 the violence peaked with two such incidents in one week. Two staff members were seriously injured and hospitalized. In 2012 one worker is still unable to return to work. Both the assaulted workers were experienced male staff.
Three more serious incidents of workplace violence over the next year included one where a client smashed an “unbreakable” window with a fire extinguisher. A female staffer grabbed the client, preventing a two-storey leap out the window. With the adrenaline pumping, she was unaware until later of the shattered glass embedded in her abdomen. She wound up in hospital fairly traumatized and years later is still hesitant working on the client units.
A female employee, observing a forensic client who was supposed to be assigned only male staff, was grabbed and carried to an isolated washroom. A client heard her screams and came to her rescue, preventing a sexual assault.
The third case involved a high-risk client who charged a staff member, pushing her into a door jamb. Both her wrists were broken in the fall.
Each incident brought in the Ministry of Labour. Their investigations led to charges being laid and CAMH was fined $35,000 on each of two charges. CAMH policies and equipment were inadequate to deal with the violence, and staff lacked proper training. When staff is not safe, neither are clients.
At an early Ministry-mandated Workplace Violence Prevention Program meeting, a unit director sloughed off workplace violence as “just clients’ reactive behavior.” Workers responded with: “When people face intimidation and have bruises and broken bones, it doesn’t matter if it is ‘reactive behaviour,’ it is still workplace violence and staff is still at risk.”
Both OPSEU and the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) got involved by putting their health and safety professionals on our working group. Lisa McCaskell from OPSEU and Erna Bujna from ONA joined us and were invaluable. They had a wealth of knowledge and experience using the Health and Safety Act. The pressure was off the workers, and the employer appointed people who could make decisions. Things began to change.
We raised problems with incident reports at this table, and Lisa and Erna backed up our arguments with the Act.
After the fire extinguisher episode, all the windows in client areas were assessed. Management established a plan to resolve the issues. New smaller extinguishers were put under lock and key; only trained emergency response team members and security staff had access. Clinical staff questioned this, but it was explained that in case of fire, their priority was to move clients to safety.
The OPSEU health and safety staff are a huge resource by pointing us to the right sections of the Act to use in our communications. The employer now knows our requests for information and action are backed up with the Act. Our confidence in using the Act has allowed us to deal with air quality, outbreaks of infectious enteric and respiratory diseases, mould and asbestos and address the health and safety concerns of contract workers.
Health and safety worker members now feel confident in being able to say to the employer: “We’ll contact OPSEU for advice.” The employer is now quicker in providing requested information.
When I first joined the committee in the early 2000s the environment was confrontational, with a lot of unproductive yelling and screaming from both sides. Once all the committee members realized that the environment had to change, it slowly got better. It took many years but eventually the workers and management were able to look at health and safety issues together.
I credit the unions (OPSEU and ONA) for the improvement: their support on the committee and the various working groups; the education that OPSEU provides to its health and safety representatives; having expertise at the end of an email or telephone. OPSEU’s training and support went beyond specific issues to include our roles on the committee and how to read and use the Act. We became more confident and the employer started treating us as knowledgeable equals.
Most of our issues have been corrected. Violence continues to be a work in progress, but CAMH is using incidents of violence and of time lost to workplace injuries as indicators in our strategic plan. This makes the issue front and centre for all our members and CAMH management. It gives us a base from which to move forward.
And of course, we know we have the union to stand behind, beside and in front of workers when needed.
It’s what the union does for you
I’ve been Chief Steward of Local 596 at Ryerson University for a total of 20 years, but with a break.
My inspiration and mentor, Connie Huziak, got me involved over my treatment when I was pregnant. I was on maternity leave, and told the employer the baby was due in September, but he arrived two weeks early. The employer decided to cut the final two weeks off my maternity leave. I was prepared to take two weeks of paid vacation to cover it, and met with my manager to discuss it. It was two weeks after the baby was born, and I had my five year old with me. The manager acted badly, using profanity, and insisted they needed me operationally.
I felt he violated my rights as a mother, using that kind of language in front of my son, but I was young and afraid and I didn’t challenge him. When I returned to work there were further discriminating comments about maternity leave and women having rights. Connie encouraged me and I started standing up for my rights. I felt this isn’t going to happen to me again.
After about a year, I ran for a position in Joint Job Evaluation and was elected. I was seconded to the union for about a year on that project. Then I ran as chief steward. I got thrown into it as we all do in these positions.
But I went to the union educationals and the union supported my family life. I brought my older child to the courses and union events as he was 5, 6 and 7. I could get the training and it was all good. It inspired me: learning what’s right and what’s wrong, and what the employer can and cannot do. I learned labour law, how to read contract language, how to be assertive as a woman leader, and the role of the union.
You become aware of the dynamics of the union. You learn how to advocate for members, how to set up meetings and you gain experience over the years dealing with people.
In the meantime, working in an educational environment, I studied. I did two certificate programs in business management and human resources. I thought it would be beneficial and it was interesting. I enjoyed the courses and did well.
I get a lot of satisfaction from being active in the union.
I’ve helped people who were denied coverage from the insurance carrier when they were on sick leave. It’s a matter of finding the right documents and information so the person can keep getting their pay – working with the employer and the insurer and the doctor. There is satisfaction in knowing they had someone to turn to when they were down.
I’ve helped members return to work with accommodation after an illness or injury.
When someone loses their job, the union is there to help file a grievance. Sometimes a dismissal is just, but often it isn’t and we force the employer to go through the proper process. It’s making sure they fight the fight and at the end of the day, getting a settlement they can be satisfied with. It’s what the union does for you.
We’ve been able to negotiate enhanced severance packages, bridging to a pension, extending benefits. I feel I have won if I have made the member content, so they can move on. Sometimes it’s best in their life, rather than putting their life on hold for the full, lengthy, and sometimes uncertain route of an arbitration hearing.
We have resolved problems for people who were discriminated against because of physical disabilities. We’ve achieved a settlement where an employee was dismissed on the basis of unproven allegations.
People turn to me to speak on their behalf, and a lot of times they ask if I am qualified. They ask if they can get a lawyer. I let them know the different resources we can get from OPSEU’s Head Office.
I believe I have the respect of our managers in how I approach things. I try to be thorough and sure of my facts. I attack the issues, not the managers. As a result, management respects the union and how we deal with situations.
My work with Ryerson involves student fees and enrolment. I did a joint job evaluation on that position, which went through an internal arbitration process resulting in 4.5 years of a retroactive pay increase for 11 people. That was satisfying.
I am training our stewards in joint job evaluation and other skills. It’s how you build a stronger local – making sure your stewards are empowered to act. We teach them to research the contract and hone their arguments.
Sometimes it is a matter of knowing where to take the fight –to an insurer, the Canada Pension Plan, Workplace Safety or some other venue. You have to be flexible and know all the tools at your disposal.
We have brown-bag lunch sessions and teach about the collective agreement, the role so stewards, what battles to fight and which to leave alone, how to control a meeting and how to lead as a union advocate.
In the role of steward, you are equal to the employer, not subservient. You can’t let management control you.