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What are unions?

Region: Ontario Answer # 622

A union is an organization of employees that is authorized to represent the employees before management for the purpose of negotiating benefits. For example, instead of each employee being treated individually by management when it comes to what they are paid, the union bosses represent all the employees at the same time and negotiate levels of pay that apply to everyone. The history of unions dates back to the industrial revolution when employees banded together in unions to protest very unsafe working conditions.

In general, trade unions are organizations made up of workers in a particular trade, such as auto workers or teachers. The current structure of trade unions and their relationship to employers differs significantly from one country to the next. In Canada, the structure of trade unions is very similar in all the provinces and in the federal jurisdiction. There are small variations in the law from province to province.

The laws governing unions and collective agreements is complicated. To get help, ask a lawyer now.

Ontario Labour Relations Act

In Ontario, the Labour Relations Act (the “Act“) regulates various aspects of labour relations for most Ontario workplaces, and defines a trade union as:

” An organization of employees formed for purposes that include the regulation of relations between employees and employers and includes a provincial, national, or international trade union, a certified council of trade unions and a designated or certified employee bargaining agency.”

Under this Act, only trade unions are given a right to engage in collective bargaining and enter into Collective Agreements. While other organizations may also engage in collective bargaining and enter into Collective Agreements, their activities are not enforceable by the Act and may lack certain protections under the general law of Canada.

Most trade unions active in Canada are large national organizations representing thousands of employees. However, small, local independent organizations can be trade unions if they follow the requirements of the Act as interpreted and applied by Labour Board decisions.


Federal Public Service Labour Relations Act

The Federal Public Service Labour Relations Act (PSLRA) is the law that regulates the collective bargaining and grievance adjudication systems in the federal public service. These functions are carried out by the Public Service Labour Relations Board (an independent quasi-judicial tribunal). Also, under the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act, this Board must perform the same role for the institutions of Parliament. Further, the Board is responsible for pay equity complaints for the public service that are within the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.


Function of unions

The two main functions of trade unions are:

  1. To represent particular groups of employees, called a “bargaining unit”, to negotiate their conditions of employment, resulting in a Collective Agreement with the employer, and
  2. To ensure that employers comply with the Agreement.

The group of employees represented in manufacturing is usually on a plant-by-plant basis, in construction on a trade basis, and in retail on a store or group of stores basis. Special unions tend to represent large groups of employees in the governmental sector, in teaching, firefighting and the police.

Union dues

Once a Collective Agreement is agreed to, unions start collecting monthly union dues from all employees, regardless of whether they ever actually supported the union. Union dues are typically equivalent to two hours pay per month.

Union leaders

The union leadership at the workplace is usually elected by the employees in that bargaining unit. Depending on the union and the size of the employee group, a union committee may be elected and a number of union stewards chosen. Stewards are the employees’ day-to-day representatives. They will themselves be regular employees but most Collective Agreements will give them special rights to do their task of representing employee concerns. More senior union officials in district, provincial and national offices will be full-time paid union personnel. They will probably be a mix of elected officials and appointed professional staff.

Get help

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The laws governing unions and collective agreements is complicated. To get help, ask a lawyer now.

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