Bitter fight by Ontario correctional officers to form own union fizzles

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TORONTO — A bid by disaffected Ontario correctional officers to form their own union has fizzled after a bitter campaign to win the hearts and cards of thousands of front-line jail workers.

Despite help from a Quebec-based labour organization, the six-month raid on the Ontario Public Service Employees Union failed in part because of the union's fearmongering, a key organizer said.

Barry Roy, president of the upstart Ontario Association of Correctional Employees, cited "disinformation" from the target union about the campaign and a natural resistance to change.

COVID, Roy said, also limited organizers' ability to communicate in person with OPSEU members during the campaign that began in earnest last June.

"This raid’s setback is but a bittersweet learning experience," said Roy, a 27-year guard and union activist. "The last battle has not been fought in this war."

The raid on OPSEU's Correctional Bargaining Unit, comprising about 9,000 officers and related workers, laid bare long-standing grievances among some guards over their union. The critics maintain they have received poor service and that the union is too close to the provincial government.

Bankrolling and logistically supporting the breakaway drive was the Quebec-based Confederation of National Trade Unions, the province’s second-largest labour group.

OPSEU president, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, said the confederation should have stayed in Quebec and looked after its own members there.

"That union should have just stayed out of our business," Thomas said. "They're a rat union that just likes to go out and raid. Why don't they organize the unorganized? They grow by raiding other unions. That's not what a decent union does."

While dissidents said they were close to achieving their membership goal, Thomas said it was clear the vast majority of OPSEU members were happy with where they were. He cited new jail construction, increased staffing and better training as examples of what the union had delivered.

"We've accomplished a lot for folks in our corrections division and they recognize that."

The dissident organization did mull asking for an extension of time to gather needed signatures but decided that wouldn't work. Also, signed cards expire after six months.

Roy said the raid was still worthwhile in raising awareness of various issues and giving voice to the disaffected. He blamed “analysis paralysis” for the raid failure.

"They simply didn’t know how to vote," Roy said. "Those folks who sat on the fence actually gave the advantage to OPSEU."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press