• By: Samantha Lapierre

OPSEU Shines a Light on Inequality

Claire_Tortolo The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) represents a diverse group of 130,000 public employees across Ontario. OPSEU empowers members to solve workplace problems. The union’s expertise extends to collective bargaining and dispute resolution through to workplace health and safety and protection of human rights. Gender equality in the workplace is just one of the causes for which OPSEU fights.

Claire Tortolo is a full-time professor at Algonquin College and teaches English as a Second Language. For the past three years, Tortolo has also been a union steward for OPSEU Local 415.

Claire Tortolo is the union steward for OPSEU Local 415.


How did you first become connected with OPSEU?

I come from a long line of public school teachers. My father was a union rep for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario when I was a kid, so I clearly remember him doing union work. I always thought it might be something of interest. About three years ago, there was a protest outside a building in downtown Ottawa that Dalton McGuinty was visiting. It was during a time when the government was going to make some major changes to the public school system. I went on my own (to the demonstration) and I bumped into a few people holding an OPSEU flag and started chatting with them. They turned out to be two executive members here at the college.They invited me to a meeting. Everything went from there.

How would you rate your experience with OPSEU?

Really positive. It has given me a great chance to see how the college system works. On a personal level, it’s been great for me to get out of my department and meet a lot of people in different parts of the college doing different types of work. The work has also been pretty eye-opening. There tends to be an assumption that things are working in a fair way when you’re in a job. Sometimes it takes digging a little deeper to start to see that there can be problems and issues. Being able to work through our own problems in our department with the union was really positive. Being able to help people in other departments as well has been great.

How has OPSEU changed gender inequality in the workplace?

In the college system, one of the best things that has come from our union representation is that we have a collective agreement that includes pay scales. We are fortunate to have that. It means that it doesn’t matter what your gender is, you are placed on the scale because of your experience, academic background, and all of those things. There really isn’t that kind of gender inequality. But I think we only have that because we have a union and because we have a collective agreement that gives us that possibility of equality.

How can we change gender inequality in general in the workplace?

I think the first step is to be aware of it and acknowledge that it still exists. I think that can be a challenge today, which is surprising, considering it’s been around for a long time. It can be difficult sometimes to get people to understand that it is a really important issue. Beyond that I believe that if (workers have) an organization, whether it is private or public, then that gives you a position to ask for equality. From my point of view, I’ve seen that work really well through the unionization process.

Do you find that younger people are more aware of inequality that they may face or that others might face?

I do think that young people are more aware of inequality. But I teach mostly international students, and many come from countries where discrimination against women is much more pronounced. Initially these immigrants are delighted about how much more equal our society is. However, once they get a deeper understanding of Canadian society, they realize that we still have a lot more work to do.