OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas and First Vice-President Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida talk about COVID-19 and what keeps them up at night.

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0:00-0:006: Intro Music

0:06 Smokey: Hi everybody. Welcome to the first edition of OPSEU Talk. My name is Smokey Thomas and I am the president of OPSEU.  

0:14 Eddy: And Hi folks, my name is Eduardo Almeida, most of you know me as Eddie. I am the first vice president, and I’m also the treasurer. 

0:24 Smokey: So folks, it’s no secret that COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Changed how we live, how we work, how we connect, or can’t connect with our family, friends, and loved ones. 

0:40 Smokey: And it’s also changing how OPSEU works. So, we were the first major employer to shut down all of our offices, have our staff work remotely. They got up and running in literally over a weekend, and we set up triage teams, and we’ve been working offsite remotely during this pandemic and it’s worked out quite well. 

1:01 Smokey: certainly not the same as meeting face to face, working face to face, but we’ve been able to maintain service and work real hard to maintain solidarity within the union. 

1:13 Eddy: And we had already foreseen some form of studio, video, and podcast last year, we had talked about it during the budget. And then you know COVID hit, and here we are, thankfully we were thinking already about doing this type of thing. But this is going to help us, I think, reach out to our members, Smokey. 

1:32 Smokey: Yea, we want to, and we’ll be inviting you to more podcasts, more discussions with special guests, sector leaders, labor leaders, leaders within OPSEU, to have all sorts of discussions around labor issues, OPSEU issues, issues in society, equity, social injustice, you name it. We intend to try and have conversations about it and have other people and all of you engaged in those conversations.  

1:57 Eddy: So one of the things people ask me and I’m sure they ask you to, Smokey: what keeps you up at night. One of the things that comes up over and over again is in regards to how OPSEU members work together safely until there’s a vaccine. And also how we can continue to sort of grow as a union and support the work of our locals, our divisions, and sectors. 

2:22 Eddy:  So, that’s one of the things, I think we need to have a conversation about with our members, and with our local Presidents, and with the DIVEXes and the sectors. We’ve talked about this quite a bit. 

2:36 Smokey: Early on, we had several fights with management, the LCBO and other employers, smaller employers around the province, and that really is the one thing that I think is most concerning is how do we keep workers safe, particularly within congregate settings? Correctional facilities, probation and parole, service Ontario, hospital labs, on the wards in hospitals. You know what I mean? Like, developmental services, group homes, and mental health, in psych hospitals. So we have lots of issues 

3:09 Smokey: But I would say this: 170,000 members in OPSEU, give or take a couple thousand on any given day. Probably 120, 130,000 work in front-line, at-risk settings in at-risk occupations 

3:26 Eddy: with at-risk clients 

3:27 Smokey: with at-risk clients    

3:29 Eddy: with inmates or what have you 

3:30 Smokey: With only now one infection is too many, but in our OPSEU membership, 370 people have contracted COVID-19. That in and of itself is a testament to how our members know how to work safe, know how to work smart, and know how to take care of each other and the people they care for. 

3:47 Eddy: But the risk, obviously, when we start talking about meetings and that type of thing, the risks starts to go for OPSEU and OPSEU members and then the people that our OPSEU members care for. The risk that comes out of that, and I think the listeners know this when you break out of your bubble or your safe unit, where does that lie? Because when you start mixing into different groups or larger groups. The issue is once you get there and then what you bring back. What are you bringing back? If you have a person who is COVID, you can infect a lot of people and not just a lot of people, they may bring something back to their families, to their workplaces, and the very people they’re supposed to be taking care of. 

4:31 Smokey: Oh, it would literally be the end of the union if we caused an outbreak. And as a trade union, with a tremendous number of really talented health-and-safety activists, activists in all areas of labor relations, we don’t want to be that group that caused an outbreak. 

4:50 Smokey: and I do agree, Eddy. The bubble right now is still 10 people, so there’s no way you can open up the regional offices. We have all the questions about deep cleaning, who’s cleaning, cleaning before and after. The executive board just had that long conversation yesterday about this with our executive board. So… 

5:10 Eddy: That was a really good conversation because some really great Ideas came out of that.  

5:14 Smokey: It was, It was. I’d say my view is this, and I know we both think the same way on this one. The health care experts, the medical experts of this province, give advice.

5:27 Eddy: Yup  

5:29 Smokey: The premier and the government of Ontario have followed that advice,  

5:31 Eddy: Yup  

5:32 Smokey: And infectious diseases expert, so I say we follow the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health and chief medical officer of health in the various districts around the province and right know they’re saying no large gatherings stick to your 10 bubble, so that means we don’t open the regional membership centres yet and we don’t have large gatherings yet. 

5:56 Smokey: We’re looking at alternatives as we speak and to how we do business  

5:59 Eddy: we talked about the hotels, right.  

6:02 Smokey: yea we did  

6:01 Eddy: Because the hotels have a responsibility, obviously and they have cleaners day and night that may cost a little upfront but in the back end there’s a huge savings for our members, and quite frankly, we have the guarantee in regards to protecting them. And let’s not forget we have staff too that are coming in and out of these buildings that we have to think about their health and safety as well.  

6:25 Smokey: Yea, well, the survey we did, was the staff. 

6:28 Eddy: It was telling.  

6:29 Smokey: There’s was a lot of apprehension about coming back and I think that’s in society in general about coming back to work.  

6:39 Smokey: You know the government was talking about maybe, maybe bringing back about 30% of workforce they have working remotely, and you know the vast majority of our members are still at work, but some are remotely, working from home, alternate locations.  

6:56 Smokey: So, it’s monumental undertaking even for us with 22 buildings.  

7:03 Eddy: You know, 22 buildings we got to think about membership centres too right, they have another I think 26, 27 membership centers we have to think about too. So you know, within the borders of Ontario we have a substantial amount of meeting space and staff space that we have to consider before we start looking at opening  

7:26 Smokey: And I think, during these unprecedented times I think we and our priority is to be safe, stay safe and keep everyone around us safe and to be patient.  

7:37 Eddy: Yea  

7:38 Smokey: It is not business as usual but be patient. We’re servicing the membership. We are doing arbitration, we’re doing collective bargaining, it’s all virtual.   

7:48 Eddy: The core work of the union continues to function.  

7:49 Smokey: Yea it does  

7:50 Eddy: And the locals are being supportive, even the workers and the locals are doing everything they need to do.  

7:58 Smokey: And I understand the desire for locals and divisions and sectors and various councils to meet, but some are doing it virtually, and so, we’re trying to figure out the way forward in the future.  

8:10 Smokey: But you know, we had a long discussion about regional, the elections next year and about conventions, so I think the prevailing thought is, we plan for convention like we’re going to have it. Folks we have, with everything at OPSEU is a committee.  

8:25 Smokey: So we actually have a convention planning committee, and we have an executive board member on that committee, and that’s their responsibility. So they can convene virtually and have staff start doing all the logistical things and be ready in case we can have a convention.  

8:42 Smokey: The dates are booked, the convention center is always booked. We book 5 years ahead, folks, to get a convention center. We have to book 5 years ahead. The regional meetings, the dates picked, I forget it’s in March sometime.  We’ll find venues for those and secure them. And then if we’re able to have them, we’re able to have them. If we have to look at alternatives, we’re doing all the exploratory work and all sorts of alternatives to be ready for any eventuality.  

9:11 Eddy: So, the one thing I would say, and I know we’re trying to keep the podcast really short, the one thing I would say and I guess the question comes for me is, what have you and what have I learned in regards to the whole process of COVID personally.  

9:30 Eddy: like how has this affected us personally? What would you say? I asked the question, so you have to go first. Hahaha  

9:32 Smokey: Hahaha… Well, other than missing my family for a few months,  

9:39 Eddy: Yea  

9:40 Smokey: Just being able to talk cause we were both stuck here in Toronto for 3 and half months, and you know when things loosened up a bit, and got to go home now and see the family face to face. I did drive down and you know Val would put the stuff on the porch from early on, and I picked up all my meds and said, “I love you, dear,” and away I went.  

10:01 Eddy: The driveway meetings.  

10:03 Smokey: Yea, driveway meetings, there were lots of those still. But what I have learned though is when I think with my heart, is public sector workers always rise to a challenge, and they rose to the challenge. Union leaders like our staff rose to the challenge, everyone around us rose to the challenge. And I think to me that, that means a lot.  

10:23 Eddy: Yea  

10:25 Smokey: You and I are not only colleagues; we are also buddies and we supported each other  

10:29 Eddy: Yea, we were in our own bubble  

10:34 Smokey: I must say, we perhaps got tired of looking at each other once in a while, but  

10:40 Eddy: I just took my glasses off. Hahaha  

10:41 Smokey: Hahaha, but no, I think there are lots of lessons learned, the government made mistakes, there’s things they could’ve done better. But who’s to say they could’ve done better? I said it yesterday “nobody has a crystal ball”, but lessons learned. And I think the province of Ontario and our union our members if heaven forbid there’s another outbreak, we’re ready though. I think now there won’t be a shortage of PPE’s. Employers have figured it out, so and hopefully it wouldn’t be a province-wide shutdown.  

11:13 Smokey: But what I have learned is the best in human nature comes out.  

11:16 Eddy: You know, I hate to sort of… I guess I should have my thoughts on this. I would say for personally, I would say patients came out for me. I learned to be a lot more patient.  

11:30 Smokey: Yea, you have actually. Hahaha 

11:32 Eddy: I have, being away from my wife and Ally she’s in health care, so we had to keep separated in regards to that. She was going to work every day and we were still in meetings, and we were still trying to run the day to day operations of the union.  

11:50 Eddy: So we were here every day, but I would say, it’s amazing to me that when a crisis comes in, and you’ll always have naysayers, and you’ll always have the people out there that are negative, always. But it’s only a handful. The majority of folk out there are honestly positive human beings that will, as you say, rise to a challenge, and in OPSEU, I can honestly say we have that in spades. I mean, we have so many positive members.  

12:20 Eddy: And you know what, it’s a testament, here’s the other thing that I like, and I’m a numbers guy, as you know and most people will know that I follow numbers and I look at how we are. And as an organization, we draw more people in because we are so positive. I think majority of OPSEU member’s like that positive message, and they don’t like negative stuff. They really don’t.  

12:44 Eddy: So hats off to OPSEU, and I think as we continue, the leaders out in the field and the leaders at OPSEU and our staff and all the other great people, they’re showing what OPSEU is made of.  

12:56 Smokey: Yup, and again I’m with you, its brought out a few naysayers, but it literally brought out,  and you see the kindness, the care, compassion, in human beings.  

13:10 Smokey: The one group of people that I feel very badly for, and lots of people, but one, in particular, is young folks who graduated from college and universities, and high school. Hoping to go into the world and work, all that’s turned upside down.  

13:25 Smokey: My own son and future daughter in law, their jobs evaporated, but you know they’re being patient and so for young folks out there, I say, “just be patient.” I’m a parent, you’re a parent, and lots of our members are our age and have kids, children, and grandchildren, so we owe it to them to keep doing the things that we’re doing.  

13:46 Smokey: As a union, but also to engage, with government, other unions business, and how we’re going to recover from all of this because the governments are going deep deep deep in debt. So we need that commitment from governments to not cut public services and, in fact, invest more in public services. And to help our young folks out and everybody that lost their jobs and those jobs that may not come back.  

14:10 Smokey: And I’ll say this, “shop local” I know you and I have done it here in Toronto, and I do when I go back home. Val does it, she shops local. It supports our community. Support local businesses, those big massive chains, they’ll survive, but some mom and pops.  

14:32 Eddie: Yea support the mom and pops, I agree. But anyways, for our first podcast, I thought that felt pretty good  

14:37 Smokey: Yeah, I liked it  

14:39 Eddy:  OPSEU talk, so anyway folks for those of you that tuned in, on behalf of Smokey and myself, and everyone else here at OPSEU. You can’t see them, but the staff behind the scenes here, thanks for joining us.  

14:54 Smokey: And, we do intend to touch on a lot of pertinence topic matters and have leaders in when we can. We may have to do some remotely for now, but this is the way the future. We know we can engage in social media; we can engage and taking advantage of all the technology available to us.   

15:13 Smokey: So make it be value-added rather than a threat.  And again, I too want to thank our staff for this. Eddy, I are out, and even in tough times, we’re able to have a few laughs.  

15:24 Eddy: Oh, yeah, we were very lucky.  

15:25 Smokey: And try and keep the light and stay sane.  

15:27 Eddy: So, stay safe, folks.  

15:29 Smokey: Yup, stay safe.   

15:30-15:35 Closing Music