Your right to organize or join a union is protected by legislation. In Alberta, the Labour Relations Code defines how to form a union and lays out the rules for union certification, bargaining, etc. The act clearly states "an employee has the right to be a member of a trade union and to participate in its lawful activities, and to bargain collectively with the employee's employer through a bargaining unit."
Unfortunately, as with most labour law in Alberta, there is often a big difference between what employers are allowed to do and what they actually do. With this in mind, it is important to know your rights when it comes to organizing a union.
As a general rule, employers don't like unions and will try to stop them from being organized - so workers should always use caution when researching, communicating with or organizing a union at their workplace. Contacting the Alberta Federation of Labour or an affiliated union can help you through the process.
Unions represent a specific group of employees in negotiations with the employer and otherwise act on the employees' behalf. A trade union may be a local of a provincial, national or international union, or it may be an independent organization that represents the employees of only one plant or business.
Any group of workers can form their own union by drafting a constitution and bylaws, signing up members, electing officers and filing with the Labour Relations Board to become a union.
These days, however, most workers who wish to become unionized do so through an established union because it makes the process easier and gives workers the support of an organization that knows the process and has organizers to help with a union drive.
The actual process of forming a union in your workplace is not complicated. To be certified, a union must demonstrate that it has the support of the majority of employees in a workplace.
This is done is by having employees sign a union membership card (or sometimes a petition) indicating the desire to be represented by a particular union. In Alberta, workers signing cards must also pay $2.00 as an application fee. Cards are valid for 90 days from the date they are signed.
Once at least 40 per cent of employees have signed cards indicating their support for a union, an application for certification is made to the Labour Relations Board. The application is made by completing and filing a form supplied by the Board and providing proof of support. In practice very few unions would file for application with only 40-per-cent support. The goal is to talk to all employees and have as many employees as possible support the union.
When the Board receives the application from the union, they check to make sure:
- the union has at least 40-per-cent support;
- the union is properly set up;
- the group of employees which the union seeks to organize is a proper bargaining unit;
- the application for certification was filed in a timely fashion; and
- there has not been any undue influence used by the union to get support.
Once the Board has determined that the union has fulfilled the above requirements, the Board will, as soon as possible, conduct a representation vote to determine if a majority of employees in the bargaining unit favours certification.
A notice of vote will be posted, setting out the type of employee eligible to vote. The vote is by secret ballot, and the majority of those employees who actually vote determine the outcome. If 50% plus 1 of the employees who vote support the union, it is certified as the exclusive bargaining agent for the employees.
The Board then issues a certificate which confirms that the union is the exclusive agent for every employee in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether or not they are a member of the union. Usually, the union and the employer then commence bargaining for a collective agreement. A collective agreement is a written contract that outlines the wages, benefits, and working conditions of employees.
The Code requires the parties to meet with each other and to bargain in good faith. They must make every reasonable effort to enter into a collective agreement. If one party feels the other is failing to meet or failing to bargain in good faith, that party may file a complaint with the Board. If the complaint cannot be settled, the Board may hold a hearing, make a finding and, if necessary, issue directives or impose conditions to ensure that good faith bargaining resumes.
It is important to know that the process is totally confidential. Unions won't tell an employer who has signed cards, the Board is not allowed to release information on who has signed cards, and the vote is conducted in secret by the Board.
The choice to form a union is up to the workers alone. The Labour Relations Code also prohibits employers from doing certain things which will interfere with the rights of employees to freely choose whether to form a union. These actions are called unfair labour practices.
- make it a condition of employment that you do not join a union
- fire you if you are a member of a union or trying to organize a union
- contribute financial or other support to a union
- participate in or interfere with the formation of a union, it is up to the employees to decide whether or not to form a union
- use coercion, intimidation, threats, promises or undue influence to interfere with employees unionizing
Some examples of other things employers cannot do are:
- promise employees a pay increase, better working conditions, additional benefits or special favours if they stay out of the union
- threaten to fire or reduce the wages of people who support the union
- threaten to close or move the company or drastically change operations if the union is voted in
- spy on workers attending union meetings
- tell employees that the company will refuse to bargain with a union if it is certified
- intentionally assign the worst jobs to union supporters
- threaten or discipline workers for talking to other employees or getting them to sign union cards during non-working times, including breaks
- transfer employees who support the union to other worksites to disrupt the union drive
- ask workers how they intend to vote in a union certification vote
- ask employees about union meetings or who they know have signed union cards
- urge loyal employees to persuade other employees not to support the union
- allow the production of anti-union literature using company equipment
Likewise, there are rules governing what a union can and cannot do. A union cannot:
- organize on the employer's premises during an employee's working hours without the consent of the employer
- use coercion, intimidation, threats, promises or undue influence to encourage trade union membership
- interfere with the performance of work because certain employees are not members of a particular trade union
In addition, once a union applies for certification, the conditions of employment are frozen. This is done by the Board because employers will often try to make conditions better at a workplace, by raising wages for example, in an attempt to convince employees to vote against forming a union.
An employer is prohibited from altering the rates of pay or any term or condition of employment or any right or privilege of any employee from the date of the application until 30 days after certification is granted. If the union serves notice to bargain within those 30 days, the employer may not alter working conditions for a further 60 days.
This rule does not apply to changes in the conditions of employment that are customary, such as a raise that is given to employees every year that happens to fall within this period.
If you think that a union might be right for you and your fellow workers, we can help!
The Alberta Federation of Labour has more than 1,100 affiliated locals in more than 30 unions across the province. These unions are provincial, national and international in scope and represent members in the private and public sector and trades.
It is in the interest of each group of unorganized workers to join a union with experience and proven effectiveness in representing workers in the same industry, service or trade. We can help you decide which union would be best to represent workers in your type of work, and we can help put you in contact with a union that can help you. All inquiries will be kept completely confidential.
For more information about forming a union or with help in finding the right union to help you, contact the Alberta Federation of Labour.