(Canadian OH&S News) — The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has been finding itself on the opposite end of the bargaining table lately, as the union representing its own frontline staff is alleging that the employees feel unsafe in the work environment.
The Ontario Public Service Staff Union (OPSSU), which has 20 offices in the province, stated in an Aug. 3 bulletin that it was holding negotiation meetings with OPSEU, but that the employer was “unwilling to consider any language regarding creating a psychologically safe work environment.” The same day, OPSSU also held a province-wide information picket at OPSEU locations across Ontario to inform the public about the workers’ issues.
“OPSSU members experience stress and burnout at alarmingly high rates, and one cause of this is the behaviour of management,” OPSSU president Pati Habermann told COHSN. “Our members feel that there’s a lot of tolerance of behaviour that’s harmful to mental health.”
Last fall, OPSEU spokesman Donald Ford was charged with 12 counts of sexual assault, regarding incidents that had allegedly occurred at the union’s headquarters from 2011 to 2015. OPSSU members feel that the employer did not handle the case effectively, Habermann explained.
“It’s left people feeling harassed and with nowhere to go with respect to a process,” she said. “As in any workplace, there’s bullying and harassment going on, but it’s sort of hidden until something explodes. You don’t know what’s going on.”
Although OPSEU has policies against bullying, harassment and discrimination, some OPSSU members feel that the policies are ineffective. “A large number of our staff are temporary, and it makes it very difficult to ensure a safe and healthy workplace,” said Habermann. “They’re particularly vulnerable, so they really never say much because they don’t want to lose their temporary jobs.”
Bob Eaton, OPSEU’s administrator of communications, said that Ford had been sent home after the first complaint against him and later terminated, and that the employer had subsequently refined its policies and directives. “There was no messing around,” he said, adding that OPSEU was “cutting-edge” and “way ahead of the curve” when it came to dealing with harassment complaints.
Eaton said that both parties’ bargaining teams had unanimously endorsed a collective agreement in June, “and then when it was back to OPSSU, it was turned down at the ratification meeting,” due to claims that the workplace was psychologically unsafe.
“We’re here to continue to ensure that OPSEU is a superior place for people to work. Superior salary, superior benefits,” he said. “We’re still intent on getting a collective agreement that’s fair and reasonable.”
OPSSU’s allegations stemmed from a workplace-stress survey that it had conducted. “We considered doing the survey jointly, but they didn’t want it to be confused in any bargaining issues,” said Eaton.
Although Eaton claimed that OPSSU had gone ahead with the employee survey without the employer’s knowledge and then used the results for bargaining purposes anyway, Habermann countered that OPSEU had “refused” to take part in the survey.
“They didn’t want to participate,” she said.
Habermann considered the Aug. 3 information picket a success in terms of getting the message out. “It gave our members momentum and made them feel good that they were able to do something to let the employer know that they’re not happy with what’s going on.”
Eaton was aware of the picket. “We don’t dismiss anything anybody says,” he said, stressing that his ultimate goal was to come up with a settlement, not to inflame things further. In bargaining, “tempers can run high. Sometimes rhetoric outweighs reason.
“We’re still committed to getting a fair deal,” added Eaton, “and we’ll continue to make sure this is a tremendous workplace to work in.”