The termination of three local Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) leaders for what they say was speaking up in their fight to improve health and safety for fellow developmental services workers has sparked a flurry of support across the province.
More than 100 OPSEU members from across Ontario gathered outside the Community Living Association of South Simcoe’s (CLASS) offices in Alliston on Tuesday to show support for the trio.
OPSEU/SEFPO staffer Greg McVeigh says the union will use every means possible to defend its members’ right to speak freely to the media and to rally.
“They have every right to that and … OPSEU is taking that very seriously," he said.
Angus resident Allan May, who has served as president of OPSEU Local 332 for the last 20 years, has worked as a direct support professional with CLASS for the last 32 years.
In a telephone interview prior to today's rally, May said that he, along with two other union representatives — one of whom resides in Barrie and served a joint health and safety representative, and the other a Wasaga Beach resident who served as treasurer — were terminated Feb. 1 by CLASS, which is a non-profit, charitable organization governed by a volunteer board of directors.
“We have been fighting health and safety since last year," May said. "We were trying to have CLASS tell us when people would get hurt — or at least (the union) health and safety rep (because) the incidents were becoming more severe, and because we’ve had two deaths in the sector."
May was referring to the 2020 death of a 63-year-old female employee who was killed while working in a group home in the Ottawa area, as well as the 2021 drowning of a 50-year-old worker at New Leaf: Living and Learning Together in East Gwillimbury.
“We knew we needed to do something," May said. "I spoke to the (executive director) in November and said we’d be doing something with OPSEU to (raise) awareness and that this couldn't keep going on. That’s when we started working on that and looking up different stuff on the computer. It’s not confidential. I can look at anything on there. And then we did the rally (in January). That seemed to be enough for CLASS."
May said it was after a rally in January that he and his two colleagues were called into human resources and informed they no longer had a job.
“They called us on Feb. 1 and terminated all three of us. It was very quick," he said. "They just gave me a letter. There was no explanation and I was shown out the back door. I wasn’t allowed to go back to my office and I wasn’t prepared for it at all."
To be fired at 64 years old for the first time in his life was hard to take, admitted May, who said one of the most difficult things about it was not being able to say goodbye to the people he has been helping for years.
“All they (told them) was ‘he’s gone’. There’s a grieving process going on here," he added. "I have been their life and some don’t have family. A few of the guys I support are my age and that’s been really hard on me and them.”
May says part of his role as the local union president is to speak up on behalf of members, so to be fired for doing his job has left him feeling frustrated.
May said the letter CLASS management provided him upon his termination noted that he and the two others had violated policies by looking on the computer and printing things off, which May admitted he did, in fact, do.
“I did it because I was looking up the incidents when I heard they were going on," he said. "I am guilty of that and I am not shying away from that, but it was all to do with health and safety. When my members start coming to me and asking what the union is going to do for them … we have to do something.
"My back was against a wall and had to do something quick,” May added. “I was honest with CLASS … (and) we can’t keep having people going to the hospital with concussions.”
“These workers care deeply about the people they support, their colleagues and their community," OPSEU president JP Hornick said in a statement emailed to BarrieToday,
But instead of listening to their concerns about health and safety, Hornick says the union members were dismissed for speaking up.
"Fighting for health and safety shouldn’t get you fired, and we’re here because our entire 180,000 member strong union stands with CLASS workers," she added.
Hornick joined the approximately 100 workers at the Alliston rally Tuesday afternoon.
“We won’t be silenced," she said, while also calling on the organization to reinstate the three workers and "work to find a pathway to a real solution to the health and safety crisis at CLASS.”
In a statement, CLASS executive director Andrew Walker said the organization supports OPSEU’s right to lawfully gather as they did so today, although he said they “fiercely disagree" with the union’s claims as it relates to the three former CLASS employees losing their jobs.
“As always, the details are between the organization and the individuals," Walker said. "However, we can share that these dismissals were grounded in facts related to the applicable laws, and aligned with not only our policies but our values.
"Our employees are our partners in providing exceptional services and support to people with developmental disabilities," he added. "The well-being and safety of both employees and people supported have always been and will always be top of mind in all planning and support decisions, and training provided."
Walker said any reports of violence or threats are taken seriously and treated with an immediate response.
"CLASS has a proven track record of providing a safe work environment, as evidenced by annual compliance audits by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and positive inspections by the Ministry of Labour," he said.
May hoped today’s rally will lead to changes around health and safety. All three terminated employees have since filed grievances with the union, he said.
Despite what has happened, he would love to get his job back.
"I didn’t want to go out this way, no way.”