You don't have to go far these days to hear negative things being said about unions. Many politicians, employers and people in the media openly criticize the labour movement. They say that unions are out of touch and out of date. They also claim that unions no longer "deliver the goods" for their members.
Yet despite all these criticisms and complaints, 4 million Canadian workers proudly call themselves union members. In fact, one in every three working people in the country belong to a union. In Alberta alone, more than 300,000 people are covered by union contracts - an increase of more than 40,000 since 1996.
Why do so many people choose to belong to unions? Because it makes sense!
The truth is that Canadian unions still have an exceptional track record when it comes to improving wages and conditions for working people. The union advantage is clear to see.
Get a Union!
Once you and your fellow employees have decided that a union can help you stand up for your rights as workers and improve your workplace, you've taken the first step in the process of forming a union. 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.
- How to Form a Union
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.
- What Employers and Unions Can Do
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.
The Union Advantage
So does it still pay to be a union member? Clearly it does. Union members enjoy better wages, better benefits and increased job security. But the biggest benefit is the strength that comes from solidarity. Unlike non-union workers, unionized workers are not alone when they have grievances; they're not alone when they file WCB claims; and they're not alone when they raise health and safety concerns.
This is the most basic lesson of the labour movement - workers are stronger when they face management shoulder to shoulder than when they stand alone. Almost all workers have the right to form and belong to unions, and labour laws protect your right to join a union and to participate in union activities. If you are interested in learning more about organizing a union in your workplace, find out more about how to join a union.
- A Binding Contract
The biggest thing that separates union from non-union workplaces is the collective agreement. In non-union workplaces, employees are often at the mercy of managers who play favourites and change terms and conditions of employment on a whim. But in a unionized environment, workers have written and legally-binding guarantees covering things like wages and benefits. Collective agreements give union workers rights and protections that are not available to other workers.
- Higher Wages
One of the most obvious benefits of belonging to a union is higher pay. In Canada, the average full time worker who belongs to a union earns $20.29 an hour compared to $17.22 per hour for non-unionized workers.
The difference for part-time workers is even more dramatic. Non-union part-timers earn $10.60 an hour compared to $17.31 for union workers. This means the union wage advantage for part-time workers is almost 70 percent!
Unionized part time employees also tend to work more hours per week, and when combined with higher average hourly wages, this means that weekly earnings nearly double ($343.94 versus $181.65).
Unions have also significantly closed the gender gap. Women with union representation earn an average of 89 per cent of the wages earned by men, compared to 71 per cent in non-unionized workplaces.
As Statistics Canada says, "It has long been known that unionized employees make more than non-union workers."
- Better Benefits
Union representation also means that you are more likely to have a dental and health care plan at your workplace, coverage for sickness or accidents, and a pension plan to which your employer contributes.
For example, Statistics Canada reports that 83 per cent of unionized employees are covered by either a pension plan or a group RRSP, compared to just 33 per cent of non-union workers. Unionized workers generally have better paid vacation leave than non-union employees (84 per cent compared to 65 per cent).
The same gap exists for health care benefits such as dental plan coverage (77 per cent to 45 per cent) and supplemental health care plans (84 per cent for unionized compared to 45 per cent for non-union).
- Health and Safety
Health and safety is a major concern for unions. Evidence clearly shows that unions lead to healthier and safer workplaces. A 1996 study showed that 79 per cent of unionized workplaces reported high compliance with health and safety regulations, compared to only 54 per cent of non-unionized workplaces.
Unions give workers a voice in making their workplaces safe by participating in decision making about health and safety through Joint Health and Safety Committees. Unionized workers also have access to training on health and safety. And they have support when they challenge employers about unsafe working conditions.
In cases where workers do get injured on the job, the union can help workers through the maze of Workers Compensation. Studies have shown that this support results in a higher likelihood of unionized workers receiving WCB benefits.
- Grievance Procedure
In a non-union workplace, workers are at the mercy of the boss. If an employee has a complaint related to the workplace, he or she can attempt to talk to a manager about it, but the manager doesn't have to do anything. The manager might act on the complaint, ignore it or even punish the employee for raising the issue - it all depends on the nature of the complaint, the company's labour-management philosophy or even the manager's mood on that particular day.
In a unionized workplace, on the other hand, grievances and complaints are handled in an entirely different manner. Unlike the non-union environment where the workers are basically subject to the whims of management, workers in unionized firms have a clear set of rights which are outlined in detail in their collective agreements. If the employer breaches provisions of the collective agreement - for example, if he or she fires a worker without just cause or if an employee is being harassed in some way on the job - then the worker can take defensive action through the established grievance procedure.
Union members don't have to face the boss or make their way through the red tape of labour law alone. Union shop stewards and representatives are there to support individual workers who have been treated unfairly.
- Active in the Community
In addition to helping their members in the workplace, most unions and central labour bodies are also active in their communities, helping to make conditions better for working people and their families, both union and non-union. Unions individually and collectively pressure the government on issues that impact working people such as minimum wage, hours of work, health and safety regulations and other employment standards.
Unions have been at the forefront of struggles to preserve and protect health care, education and other important public services. Unions fight budget cuts and laws that help big business while eroding the quality of life in our communities. Unions support people in need by lobbying government on Employment Insurance, public pension plans, and welfare to ensure that all people have a safety net underneath them. Unions have been a key player in educating the public about the negative impacts of globalization in Canada and around the world.
Through training, support, research, information sharing and coalition work, unions help their members become active on issues that are important to them and the communities they live in.
The facts about unions
- Unions are democratic
Canadian unions are run by people like you and their resources come from members' dues. Comparing "big unions" to big corporations is like comparing apples to oranges, but it's a trick that corporations and the media they own love to use.
Unions consist of everyday working people who elect representatives that try to get the best deal for them. Elected union officers are accountable to the membership and have to run for election, unlike corporate CEOs.
- Unions negotiate
In Alberta, more than 98 per cent of contract negotiations are settled without a strike. No union wants a strike and one will only take place after the majority of members vote to do so. Strikes do occur when both sides cannot reach an agreement and the workers think the issues are too important or that other remedies won't work. More working days are lost in a year to workplace accidents and illnesses than are lost to strikes.
- Union workplaces are good workplaces
Unions bargain for much more than wages. They have fought to eliminate sweat shops, address workplace discrimination, ensure pay equity, reduce the number of working hours, and improve health and safety conditions.
Unions also fight to preserve and enhance social programs like Medicare, public education, and pensions. Job security, retraining, and eliminating racism are also high on the list of union priorities.
- Unions bargain in good faith
In contract negotiations, unions base their demands on the needs of the membership. The members themselves state what their needs are during meetings to set bargaining proposals. Negotiations are like any other part of life: we always try to get the best deal we can. But we also take into account the financial circumstances of the employer.
In Alberta, the vast majority of union contracts are negotiated fairly, and in a manner that benefits all parties involved.
- Union dues are collected fairly
A union is formed in a workplace when a majority of workers voluntarily agree to sign union membership cards. Unions are democratic organizations, and the wishes of the majority rule.
Everyone in the workplace benefits from a union contract, so everyone pays dues. Like the saying goes, there are no free lunches. Unions require revenue to provide services and representation to members. And those services and representation are available to all members.
- Unions are relevant to today’s workplace
Corporations are stronger than ever before. Global trade and investment deals threaten to put even more power in their hands, at the expense of citizens and our elected governments.
Workers need unions to do what would be next to impossible on their own: counterbalance the power of employers, protect members' rights, and work for further improvements.
- Unions protect good employees
No collective agreement requires an employer to keep a worker who is incompetent or lazy. The union doesn't shelter a worker who is deliberately absent or always late for work.
But unions do make sure that discipline is for just cause and not because of personality clashes between a worker and the employer. A union contract is really job insurance for good employees.
- Unions empower whole communities
The labour movement was a leader in the fight for civil rights, Medicare, public education, the minimum wage, and better working conditions including the 40-hour work week. Unions went on strike for pensions and set the standards for society.
Sure, union members want their own working conditions to improve, but we all have children, family, and friends who aren't unionized, and we want them to have a better life, too.
We believe that improving the prosperity and working conditions of all workers is in the best interest of union members.