Source: Steverook1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ontario Public Sector Employees’ Union (OPSEU), one of the province’s largest unions representing an estimated 180,000 workers, has filed a lawsuit against three former leaders, including long-serving president Warren “Smokey” Thomas. OPSEU says Thomas and two other former executives paid themselves millions of dollars in union funds they were not entitled to and gave union cars to family members and acquaintances.

OPSEU alleges that Thomas, former first vice-president/treasurer Eduardo Almeida, and former financial services administrator Maurice Gabay unlawfully transferred $6 million to themselves, which the union says it discovered in a forensic audit after Thomas and Almeida stepped down from their positions in April 2022. As reported by the Toronto Star, the union alleges the three men “withdrew $670,000 in cash from a strike fund without explanation, received ‘significant compensation’ atop their salaries and had union-purchased vehicles transferred to themselves and their families.” The lawsuit also alleges union funds were used to pay home repairs and moving expenses for a non-union member Gabay had a personal relationship with.

The union is seeking the “recovery of funds and assets unlawfully transferred from OPSEU in the amount of $1.75 million from Thomas, $3 million from Almeida, and $1 million from Gabay, along with $6 million in damages for “breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, conspiracy, conversion and/or unjust enrichment (less any amounts recovered)”, according to the statement of claim. It is also seeking “aggravated and/or punitive damages” of $500,000 each from the three men.

The OPSEU lawsuit comes less than a year after Unifor, the nation’s biggest private-sector union, revealed a bribery scandal involving their own former president Jerry Dias. Lawyers for Thomas deny the allegations, which have not been proved in court. However the courts decide, OPSEU’s claim has highlighted persistent problems in Canada’s labour movement: corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, and poor leadership.

Separation from the rank and file

The root source of this corruption is business unionism: the false view that workers and bosses have the same interests and that unions should be run like businesses. Union leaders who adopt this perspective of class collaboration with the bosses cannot fight effectively for members. Instead, under the influence of alien class ideas, they come to identify with the bosses, see themselves as separate from the membership, and are chiefly concerned with their own privileges.

One just has to compare the base salary of union executives to rank-and-file members to see a notable difference. For example, annual wages of OPSEU education workers, who joined an illegal strike last year in solidarity with CUPE counterparts against Doug Ford’s back-to-work legislation, are only about $39,000. Meanwhile, Thomas in 2021 earned a salary of $142,740 and Almeida $131,322, according to the statement of claim. OPSEU’s allegations suggest these union leaders, who already earn much more than the average rank-and-file member, felt inclined to help themselves to even more of the union’s money for their personal benefit.

The statement of claim says OPSEU paid Thomas and Almeida “significant non-salary and cash payouts to which they were not entitled” throughout their tenures, including nearly $399,472 to Thomas and $281,275 to Almeida for “lieu days”. It paid them $88,875 and $79,681 respectively for “compensating days” for overtime, to which as elected officials they were not entitled to, OPSEU says. The union also alleges that Thomas and Almeida received money in the form of unauthorized “signing bonuses”.

The Toronto Star reports:

“These compensation payments were not known to or authorized by the executive board at the time,” the statement of claim says, adding that “Gabay, who was charged with oversight of payroll and compensation, breached his employment duties to OPSEU/SEFPO by conspiring or colluding with Thomas and Almeida, and/or permitting these unauthorized payments to be made to them.”

The statement of claim also says the three “incurred significant expenses” on union credit cards that the union paid out, without receipts or documentation, with Almeida’s charges alone totalling $1,361,716… In addition, the claim alleges, “since the defendants’ departures, OPSEU/SEFPO has discovered that Thomas, Almeida and/or Gabay caused the union to transfer ownership of vehicles formerly registered to OPSEU/SEFPO to themselves, their relatives or their acquaintances, without consideration and for no legitimate purpose” over the years.

The lawsuit further alleges unauthorized, unexplained, and undocumented withdrawals of money from the union’s strike fund between 2014 and 2020, in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $70,000. In some of the years when these withdrawals occurred, OPSEU says, there was not even a strike or lockout.

Finally, the statement of claim alleges unauthorized payouts from union funds to Thomas, Almeida, Gabay, and others “purportedly to settle complaints filed by those employees, for amounts that were inappropriate, unreasonable and excessive.” The Star reports:

These payments included one filed by Thomas that alleged “discrimination and harassment against certain members of OPSEU/SEFPO’s executive board and claiming damages for injuries to his feelings, dignity and self-respect” for a lump-sum payment by OPSEU/SEFPO to Thomas of $500,000 and the transfer of an OPSEU/SEFPO vehicle to Thomas, the statement of claim says.

The statement of claim also refers to “an agreement between OPSEU/SEFPO and Almeida in March 2022, purportedly to settle an unparticularized claim by Almeida for ‘defamation, intentional interference with economic relations, intentional infliction of mental suffering and civil conspiracy’ for a lump-sum payment of $500,000 and the transfer of an OPSEU/SEFPO vehicle to Almeida.”

If the allegations against Thomas, Almeida, and Gabay are true, they represent a betrayal of the OPSEU members they claimed to represent as well as the very principles of union democracy. However, it would not be the first time Thomas has betrayed the labour movement. We do not use the word “betrayal” lightly.

Even before OPSEU’s lawsuit, Thomas epitomized the rot of Canada’s labour leadership, which flows from its prevailing outlook of class collaboration.

Class collaboration means corruption

In April 2021, Thomas publicly called for collaboration with Ontario’s right-wing Ford regime. At a time when Ford’s anti-worker policies, such as keeping dangerous workplaces open and refusing to legislate paid sick days, were feeding the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and driving workers to exhaustion, illness, and even death, Thomas chose to grovel before Ford, defending the premier as caring and hard-working while attacking Ford’s critics. As Fightback said at the time, “Thomas is effectively telling workers who criticize Ford to shut up… it is class collaborators such as Thomas who care less about the well-being of workers than they do about their own futures—their comfortable salaries as top bureaucrats, and their cozy relationship with the enemies of working people.” OPSEU’s allegations, if proven, would only further confirm that view.

Marxists hold that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Labour leaders who are separate from the rank and file and enjoy much higher salaries have a material interest in not rocking the boat. The perspective of class collaboration suits bureaucrats like Thomas who come to identify their interests with those of the bosses. These careerists and class traitors, who try to keep workers docile and discourage them from fighting, often find themselves well rewarded for their service after stepping down from union leadership positions. Consider the example of Hassan Yussuff, former president of the Canadian Labour Congress, whose commitment to maintaining social peace and support for the strikebreaking Liberal regime won him the patronage of Justin Trudeau and a seat in the unelected Senate. Such incentives are another reason why labour leaders can cozy up to the most anti-worker governments.

The outlook of business unionism, which abandons any class perspective, encouraged the rightward shift of labour leaders like Thomas and Dias to the point where they can appear side by side with Doug Ford at a press conference and shake hands, sowing illusions in a regime that has proven itself a sworn enemy of workers over and over through its anti-labour policies. Union leaders who embrace a government that attacks workers are not serious about fighting for workers. It is therefore unsurprising that they would not take seriously the protection of union funds for legitimate purposes and allegedly use members’ dues to enrich themselves.

For workers’ democracy and class-struggle unionism!

The solution to corruption, poor leadership, and lack of transparency in the labour movement is a return to basic principles of union democracy. The power of a union comes from rank-and-file workers organizing collectively to fight for their interests. Privileged bureaucrats who do not share the material interests of the rank and file, whose actions are not transparent and who cannot be held accountable in an efficient manner, cannot lead workers to victory. Inflation and the skyrocketing cost of living are forcing more and more workers to strike just to keep our heads above water. Union leaders who embrace enemies of the working class have no place at the head of our movement.

To guarantee an accountable leadership that represents rank-and-file union members, all union positions must be regularly elected. Those elected officials must be subject to recall at any time, especially after a union leader refuses to fight against the employer or violates the democratic rights of members. To ensure connection between leaders and the rank and file, no union official should be paid more than what they would earn if they were still in the workplace.

Finally, union members should not support leaders who subscribe to the discredited perspective of business unionism and class collaboration. Workers and employers have fundamentally antagonistic interests. That includes the public sector, since the state represents the interests of the capitalist class and therefore seeks to keep workers unorganized with wages and benefits as paltry as possible. The crisis of capitalism has forced workers everywhere to fight back just to keep wages in line with inflation. We need class-struggle methods and a labour movement that is prepared to strike when necessary. We need unions that do not respect the right of the capitalist class to rule society. To fight and win we have to adopt the perspective of revolutionary unionism, which recognizes that the only way to end capitalist exploitation and oppression is through the socialist transformation of society.