We often get contacted by employees who are members of unions and employers looking to better understand the pros/cons when faced with unionization. What does it mean to be in a union?

Collective Agreement vs. a Contract

One big difference between unionized and non-unionized employees is that the employment relationship with the employer is governed not by individual contracts but by a collective agreement.

The collective agreement will contain the terms and conditions of employment applicable to all employees who are covered by that collective agreement. Generally, this means that all employees within certain classes will be treated the same, paid the same etc.

Non-unionized employees have individual agreements with the employer (employment contracts) and can, therefore, have individualized terms of employment. In a non-unionized workplace, an employer can pay employees who do the same job different amounts, let them have different work schedules etc.

Collective vs. Individual Negotiations

Because a unionized employee’s relationship with the employer is governed by the collective agreement, if they want a raise, this would have to be negotiated through the collective agreement process and this would mean a raise for everyone in their class. The union would also have to determine whether or not a raise was worth asking for. Unionized employees generally cannot get special or individualized treatment from the employer.

A non-unionized employee can negotiate on their own behalf and an employer is allowed to treat employees differently (subject of course to disallowed human rights considerations). If a non-unionized employee wanted a raise, they could just ask for one and the employer could grant one, generally without it having larger ramifications for the wider workforce.

Advancement

Unions are all about fair and equal treatment. Collective agreements will usually contain specific provisions by which an employer is allowed to promote an employee. Seniority is generally very important and in many cases, the employer will have to give the promotion to the most senior applicant, provided all applicants are equally qualified.

Perks like vacation scheduling, shift selection and overtime opportunity are generally allocated in order of seniority, with the most senior employees getting the first picks.

Check out some union reality highlights from this job ad for a City of Ottawa Bus Operator:

  • “expect no summer vacation for up to 10 years”
  • “It has not been uncommon for new operators to work weekends for 5 to 10 years”
  • “Junior Operators will work 12 out of 14 days for the next 3 –5 years”

The ad caught media attention for its honesty. These are the realities of a unionized workforce – the perk being that after 10 years, once you get the first pick of vacation, you’ll always have summers off.

The Power for All vs. The Power of One

After learning that unionized employees can’t ask for their own raise or get a vacation in the summer for 10 years you might be wondering why anyone would want to be in a union. Unionized employees generally have a lot more power in the employment relationship, and a lot more job protection, than their non-unionized friends.

Unionized employees, for example, can generally only be terminated for cause or where a position is really and truly eliminated. Non-unionized employees can generally be terminated for any reason, as long as they are provided with notice.

Unionized employees have their union to go to bat for them if they are treated unfairly by the employer. A non-unionized employee will generally have to pay a lawyer out of their own pocket if they need legal help in their employment relationship.

Because unionized employees act as a group, they have the power to seriously disrupt the employer’s operations (ie. STRIKE) and therefore they have more power in the employment relationship as a collective than just one employee.

What if my union isn’t doing what I want?

We often hear from employers facing potential unionization, as well as employees who feel that their union isn’t representing them fairly. We are occasionally retained by some of these individuals to provide legal advice behind the screens, but an individual unionized employee cannot be represented by their own lawyer in their relationship with the employer. They must be represented by the union. The only way around this fact is by making a “Duty of Fair Representation Complaint” to the Labour Relations Board. It’s a big deal.