What is a labour union?

A labour union, or “union,” is when workers from a specific sector or business unite to improve their working conditions. They enlist a third-party union to help them negotiate better working standards for wages, job stability, and work safety.

The union's primary role is to negotiate a fair collective agreement (CA) and act as a mediator supporting staff with the employer. Unions have been around for many years and are regulated by federal and provincial legislation. Many of the labour rights we enjoy in the workplace in Canada today are thanks to workers who used a union as a tool for change. For example, in the 1960s, immigrants working in unsafe conditions, with the help of a union, fought for the right to safe working conditions. Another example is the maternity and parental benefits that companies offer today.

Who can form a union?

Any worker who is not in a management position, with some exceptions, can form a union as long as most staff are in favour of unionizing. According to the Freedom of Association section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian workers have the legal right to form a union. Employers must also agree to meet and discuss issues presented by the employees in a collective bargaining process. If there is a breakdown in good-faith communication with the employer during the bargaining process, employees also have the right to strike (work stoppage). Currently, close to 30% of Canadian workers are members of unions.

*Exceptions who cannot form a union are:

  • domestic workers in private homes (nannies, housekeepers)
  • independent contractors
  • agricultural workers
  • managers with staff reporting under them

How to Form a Union

Firstly, you must identify the problems in your workplace that need improvement and discuss them with your coworkers. If you find a collective interest in addressing certain work problems, you should discuss the issues with management. If you’ve exhausted all options to resolve the problems and conditions are not improving, you might consider forming a union.

A union can help improve the workplace by:

  • creating a safer and fairer environment
  • offering better pay and benefits
  • providing more work-life balance opportunities
  • stabilizing wage increases and establishing pensions

Steps to Form a Union

  1. Contact a union to work with an organizing expert.
  2. Staff sign confidential membership cards indicating their desire to form a union. In this process, 40% of cards must be signed to trigger a union application.
  3. The union rep submits the signed cards to the Ontario Labour Relations Board with an application for certification. Each province has its own application process for their labour board. 
  4. The Labour Board acknowledges the union request, and employees are asked to cast a secret ballot vote. If more than 50% of the staff vote for the union, the union is established, and the employer is notified.
  5. Workers form a bargaining team and can begin negotiating a first contract, called a collective agreement (CA).
  6. Once the collective agreement is completed, voted on by staff, and accepted by both sides, staff members will begin to pay union dues. Union dues are typically deducted from each pay cheque and run anywhere from 1-2% of your yearly salary.

Collective Bargaining and Collective Agreement (CA)

Collective bargaining is the negotiation process between the union and the employer to create the CA. The employee side of negotiations is made up of union bargaining representatives who are well-versed in labour relations and trends and a few staff members. On the employer side, there are usually management leaders, an employment or corporate lawyer(s), and other Human Resources representatives.

The bargaining teams meet regularly to negotiate what to include in the CA written contract. The CA outlines things like:

  • employment terms and conditions for unionized staff (wages, hours, working conditions, health benefits and retirement plans)
  • rights, privileges and duties of everyone involved (the employer, union, and employees)

Once finalized, the CA is presented to the bargaining staff membership for a final vote. If everyone agrees on the terms and conditions written in the CA, the union proceeds to “ratify” the collecting agreement. Collective agreements are generally re-negotiated every 2-5 years so that you can adjust and renegotiate the conditions to keep them current and relevant. 

Strikes and Lockouts

Employees have a right to strike at any time during the negotiation process. A strike is when staff walk off the job and withhold their services because they disagree with the terms being offered by the employer. Strikes often force the employer to open discussions and continue fair negotiations. The lockout is when the employer locks staff out from returning to work unless they accept their proposed terms. 

Typically, strikes don't happen until the final steps of negotiations; once both parties have exhausted every opportunity and can't reach an agreement. A strike is a tool the bargaining unit uses to keep negotiations fair and the employer open to discussion.

Last updated: January 25, 2023 4006554