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Attempts by new leaders of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union to reform the union’s internal culture has provoked the ire of some of the organization’s own employees in recent months.

The reforms, which involve an extensive financial audit of the union’s books, have led to recent allegations of financial misappropriation against former union executives and amplified tensions among different factions of the organization.

Documents obtained by The Globe and conversations with numerous sources paint a picture of a labour organization ensnared by internal politics and rivalry between new leadership which took over in April of last year, and those loyal to former union leader Warren (Smokey) Thomas, who was at the helm of the union for 15 years.

One source described the current work environment at OPSEU as distracting, making it harder for staff to focus on organizing members headed into new rounds of bargaining. Another source described the upheaval as essential for the union to undergo, to become a more equitable and transparent organization.

The Globe is not naming these sources as well as others who discussed matters at the union because they were either not authorized to speak publicly about their employer or feared reprisal.

OPSEU is one of the largest unions in Canada, representing 180,000 public sector workers in Ontario including correctional service officers, social workers, teachers and professors at colleges, and long-term care workers. It employs more than 300 staff.

Last week, the union was thrust into the limelight after it sued Mr. Thomas, former vice-president and treasurer Eddy Almeida and a former administrator Maurice Gabay, alleging the trio inappropriately used millions of dollars in cash and assets for personal enrichment. Among the accusations in the lawsuit are that Mr. Thomas and Mr. Almeida took up to $670,000 from the union’s strike fund, and that Mr. Thomas transferred four union-owned vehicles to himself and his wife and son. Mr. Thomas has called the allegations “bogus.” Mr. Gabay and Mr. Almeida have yet to respond to the allegations. No statements of defence have been filed and the allegations have not been tested in court.

The turmoil at OPSEU is happening at a crucial time for unions in Canada. Prolonged inflation that has led to a cost-of-living crisis for many, coupled with a labour shortage across numerous sectors, has given workers and unions the kind of bargaining power they have not had for decades. This year, dozens of collective agreements of OPSEU members, particularly long-term care workers, are expiring, setting the union up for critical negotiations with employers.

In late 2021, Mr. Thomas announced he was retiring after seven consecutive terms as president, and a leadership campaign picked up steam in the early months of 2022. He and Mr. Almeida had held their positions for over a decade, and Mr. Almeida was running to maintain his position. The race for leadership was contentious, pitting an old guard against a new crop of people who were intent on bringing about significant reforms to the union’s culture.

Indeed, current president JP Hornick and vice-president and treasurer Laurie Nancekivell centred their campaign on putting the interests of workers’ first, improving the diversity of staff and members, as well as increasing transparency around how the union’s money is used.

When Ms. Hornick was eventually elected in April of last year, she hired two outside consultancies with the approval of the union’s executive board. The first, Evenings + Weekends Consulting, was tasked with transitioning the union and its staff through a management change, and the second unnamed company was a forensic auditor entrusted to conduct a thorough audit on the union’s finances and spending patterns of previous leadership.

In an interview with The Globe, Paul Taylor, the co-founder and principal of Evenings + Weekends said that OPSEU had hired his company primarily to help the union evolve from an organization that tended to be hierarchical and set in its ways to one that was more activist and saw its role of fighting for members as core to its function.

Mr. Taylor started organizing meetings with hundreds of OPSEU’s employees, with the intent of gauging their sentiment toward the workplace and to understand the systemic issues plaguing the union.

Two current employees of OPSEU described the union’s work culture as one that was heavily white and male, consisting of groups of old boys’ clubs who tended to dictate the terms of how the union operated.

It had, for years, not been a pleasant workplace for some OPSEU staff, particularly younger, racialized workers, Mr. Taylor acknowledged, and he told OPSEU he wanted to review the union’s hiring and promotion process. “Labour unions, especially at the leadership level tend to be very male and very white so I wouldn’t say this is a problem unique to OPSEU.”

But simultaneously, over the past six months, a group of employees, some of whom do not work at OPSEU any more, became increasingly concerned about the direction the new leadership was taking, particularly regarding certain investigations of employees which resulted in suspensions and eventual firings.

Three sources who spoke to The Globe – one currently employed with OPSEU and two former employees – said they believed the investigations have focused on people perceived as loyal to Mr. Thomas and Mr. Almeida.

At least a dozen employees have either been fired, suspended or have gone on sick leave over the past year, according to the three sources and documents detailing the nature of some of the terminations. One of the unions representing the supervisory staff of OPSEU, the Administrative Staff Union (ASU), has filed five grievances against OPSEU at the Ontario Labour Relations Board on behalf of four employees.

In late November last year, Gord Longhi, the president of the ASU, sent an e-mail to members warning them of an “unprecedented” series of suspensions of employees by OPSEU’s new leadership. In the e-mail, he called the suspensions “disturbing” and accused OPSEU’s leadership of not adequately informing the ASU about the reasons behind the employee suspensions.

The union and its new leaders are also facing a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed by a former employee, Ted Panagiotoulias, who was an employee relations administrator for the union. Mr. Panagiotoulias, who is seeking up to $1-million in damages from OPSEU, has accused the union, particularly Ms. Hornick and Ms. Nancekivell, of making him “take action” against a list of staff targeted as “political enemies” by OPSEU’s leadership.

In the lawsuit, Mr. Panagiotoulias said he suffered severe mental anguish after being asked to terminate the employment of an OPSEU employee who made a sexual harassment complaint against a former executive of OPSEU.

In an e-mailed response to The Globe, Ms. Hornick said that individual human resources matters were “confidential” and declined to comment on the string of suspensions or whether they were connected to the forensic audit. She also declined to comment on Mr. Panagiotoulias’s lawsuit, because it was an unresolved legal matter.

“Change is obviously hard for those who may have favoured how things were, but our members sent us a strong message to change the status quo and make our union stronger, and that’s what we will do,” she said.

She went on to say that the union was aware that the news of the last couple of weeks could be seen as a distraction by some, but that the legal action OPSEU took was a “necessary step to seek justice” for union members.

Unions are inherently political organizations, and leadership changes often result in conflicts between groups of staff, believes Stephanie Ross, a professor of labour studies at McMaster University.

“When you have new leaders take over, especially after the old ones have been in power for a long time, you’re left with the staff that came before, and sometimes those staff could have gotten their jobs through a combination of expertise and political loyalty to the previous leadership,” she explained.

Mr. Taylor, who has spent much of his career as a consultant working with and advising unions, also said that leadership transitions tend to be particularly challenging in labour organizations. “How do we make real change by actually shifting the systems that have informed how we have done our work for so long? You need a new group of leaders that are truly committed to that level of reform,” said Mr. Taylor.

In many organizations, Mr. Taylor said, new leaders come in knowing that old leaders did terrible things, but are unwilling to shake an organization up to rectify old problems. “But I believe we are seeing a commitment to change from this new leadership.”

Mr. Longhi, the leader of the ASU, has a slightly different view of the problems within OPSEU. He said that while the last few months have been difficult for some staff at the union, OPSEU’s workplace culture had been complicated and fractured for years, even under the previous leadership. “For anyone that works for a union, when there’s a leadership change, certain workers are vulnerable because of who they were friends with, and what directions they had to follow under old leadership,” he said.

He said reforming OPSEU’s culture would have to involve limiting the power of the president and the executive board to make unilateral decisions on hiring and firing. “OPSEU’s president position still has, in my opinion, far too much power and involvement in employee and labour relations and this has been an ongoing issue at OPSEU.”

Ms. Hornick said that she was in favour of opening conversations with members about possible union structures, including the role of the president.

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