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What is a Collective Agreement?

Region: Ontario Answer # 624

Collective Agreements are deals negotiated by unions and employers. Collective Agreements provide certain terms and conditions of employment for a group of employees, called the ‘bargaining unit,’ who are represented by a trade union. The Collective Agreement establishes the workplace rights of both the employees and the trade union. Therefore, every union relationship will usually result in a Collective Agreement. On rare occasions, where a Collective Agreement cannot be negotiated, the union will cease representing the employees, either by abandoning its rights or because the employees terminate the union’s representation rights.

Any term or condition of employment can be the topic for negotiations and can be dealt with in the Collective Agreement. For very large bargaining units, the Collective Agreement may be hundreds of pages long. In a typical manufacturing plant or retail store, however, Collective Agreements are more often about 30 pages long.

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

What do Collective Agreements deal with?

Collective Agreements often deal with the following:

  • Wage rates
  • Health benefits
  • Layoff rules
  • The right to challenge employer disciplinary actions
  • Vacation entitlement
  • Holidays
  • Bereavement leave
  • Jury duty leave
  • Promotion selection rules
  • Occupational safety provisions

The Collective Agreement will also require the employer to deduct union dues from all employee salaries, and submit them to the union.


Negotiating a Collective Agreement

Before beginning negotiations for a Collective Agreement, the union must receive certification by the Labour Board. Within a short time after receiving certification, the union will begin the collective bargaining (or negotiating) process with the employer. The purpose of the negotiations is to reach an agreement on the numerous issues that can be included in the agreement.

In negotiations, the employees will be represented by an elected committee and a professional trade union staff member who is employed for this purpose.

Once a tentative agreement is reached between the employer and the union representatives, every union member has an opportunity to vote to accept or reject it. If at least 50% of the union members, who actually vote, accept the agreement, it then becomes legally binding. If the union members do not accept the agreement, the employer and the union representatives may continue negotiating. Alternatively, the union may call for a strike vote. A strike vote must also receive at least 50% support from those voting. Very rarely, where a union can neither obtain a ratification or a strike authorization, it will abandon its right to represent the employees.

Typically, negotiating the first Collective Agreement takes as long as six months. Renewal agreements will take a few months to negotiate as well, but while they are being negotiated, the old agreement remains in force.

Collective Agreements are most often for a two-year period, sometimes three and occasionally one. Before the agreement expires, the union and the employer will begin negotiations for a renewal agreement.

If the employer and the union cannot negotiate a Collective Agreement in the first place, or cannot agree to a renewal, the union can recommend that employees engage in a strike to put pressure on the employer. There are complex rules in the Labour Relations Act that govern both the approval process and legal timing of a strike. Employers can also “lock out” employees to put pressure on the union, but lockouts are, in fact, rare.

While a Collective Agreement is in force, it can be changed only by voluntary, mutual agreement. A change in the term of the agreement must be approved by the Labour Board.


Enforcing employee rights

Procedures for enforcing employee rights are also set out in Collective Agreements. It is the responsibility of the trade union to enforce employee rights by filing a grievance and when necessary pursuing the issue to arbitration. Usually, employees must seek union representation to pursue their rights if a complaint is rejected by their immediate supervisor. The exact process of filing a grievance, and even proceeding to arbitration, varies in different Collective Agreements.

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

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