Employees Union, the two blend perfectly.
As a former journalist covering Queen’s Park in Toronto, Wheeler’s experience reporting on labour issues eventually led him to his current role with COPE Ontario.
“People outside our profession don’t know how much of law is writing — much of advocacy is done in the form of a strongly worded letter,” says Wheeler.
He found many of the skills he picked up in the world of journalism were transferable to the legal world. “Journalism is advocacy, law is advocacy, you’re advancing what you think is good public policy,” he says. “I think there (is) a lot of overlap.”
Wheeler, who was born in York Harbour, N.L., graduated from journalism school at King’s College in Halifax in 1982. (He eventually went on to get a degree in criminology at the University of Toronto and a law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School).
His resume includes writing for The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press, but much of his journalism career was spent at Toronto’s NOW Magazine (an alternative news and entertainment publication) as associate editor and head of the news department.
For many of those years, Wheeler covered the labour beat. It’s a period of his life he recalls fondly. Mel Lastman was mayor of Toronto, policing was a big issue at the time, and there was always some sort of “labour intrigue” going on.
“They were good news years,” he says, “though some people would say maybe not as good as the Rob Ford years.”
But Wheeler had that “existential angst” many people feel when they turn 40 — did he want to keep doing the same thing he’d been doing for the past 10 years, or did he want to try something new? Turns out, he was ready for a new challenge.
When he decided to go to Osgoode, it was only natural he gravitated toward labour and employment law. He articled at the Toronto litigation and labour law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, was called to the bar in 2005, and went on to become an associate at Shell Lawyers, a boutique firm whose practice focuses on labour and human rights law.
Five years later, in January 2010, he decided to make the move in-house with COPE Ontario. “To some extent being in-house is like being back at my desk [at NOW] because you’re right in the middle of the action,” says Wheeler. “I’m often in the room with some of the same people I covered when I was at NOW.”
COPE represents public- and private-sector unions across Canada; COPE Ontario represents all the locals in Ontario, with a goal of ensuring their members are informed, represented, and respected in the workplace. The locals, however, are autonomous and make their own decisions.
What makes it different from working in private practice, he says, is having a more direct relationship with the work.
“If you’re in private practice you’re always having to worry about how many hours a file will take and how many hours you can bill based on the client’s ability to pay for the matter” says Wheeler. “You have more flexibility [in-house] to give matters the time they’re worth, rather than what you can bill for them.”
What’s also different is the level of engagement; he’s not sitting on the sidelines.
“Being a staff member of a union, I have a voice in the debate about the future of unions and how they have to innovate and change their practices, how they have to get with the program in a world where people have a more individual orientation rather than a collective orientation,” says Wheeler.
“How do you make it meaningful where the primary unit is myself? We are not in the 1950s industrial age… unions are realizing they have to make an intellectual and cultural leap into the new world.”
While he’s passionate about the evolution of unions (he recently helped organize a conference on this topic at Ryerson University in Toronto), what takes up much of his time at COPE is handling grievances — preparing them, arguing them, and settling them. (He also gives advice to the locals on various matters, such as contract interpretation, as well as general strategic advice.)
He advises on whether a case has merit, and whether to move forward or settle. There are typically two kinds of grievances: a policy grievance (such as the meaning of a “holiday,” which is more of a technical dispute), as well as an individual grievance (such as when someone has been disciplined or terminated).
“We have many people to please — the griever and the other 200 people in the bargaining unit who might not be on the griever’s side,” says Wheeler.
A policy grievance is “a more lawyerly type of endeavor,” he says, where lawyers argue their points before an arbitrator. With individual grievances, however, there’s much more emotion involved, especially if someone has lost their job. “Their self-worth is at issue,” he says, “so one has to manage the case as well as manage the griever in terms of their anxiety.”
That adds to the challenge of his job. “My client is the local and not the griever; the individual member often assumes it’s like hiring their own real estate or criminal lawyer, but I do not take my instructions from the griever, I take them from the local,” says Wheeler. “So one has to, from the get-go, set out what the relationships are. It’s often difficult for the griever to understand that.”
The arbitration process, too, is often slow and time-consuming. “The system takes a long while to deal with them,” says Wheeler. “A matter might go on for months.”
Indeed, there are 26 locals in Ontario; Wheeler is the only in-house lawyer. He might have 20 to 30 cases to deal with at any given time, all at various stages.
During the course of a month, he might have anywhere from five to 10 days of hearings.
Aside from grievances he’s also involved with member engagement. In the past, unions talked about organizing the organized. Nowadays, many people get a job with an organization that’s already unionized.
“They barely know they have a union or what’s in the agreement,” says Wheeler. “The emphasis now is as much on engaging members we already have (as) getting new members.”
Wheeler, who is of Mi’kmaq aboriginal heritage, also represents COPE Ontario on the Aboriginal Circle of the Ontario Federation of Labour. Though it’s hard to
imagine Wheeler has any spare time, he’s also a part-time graduate fellow in aboriginal law at the University of Toronto, currently working on his thesis.
“It’s more of a personal thing than a career thing,” he says. Perhaps it’s a labour of love — or maybe it has to do with his love of labour law, advocacy, and learning. But either way, it’s been a recipe for career success.