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What is a Union? What Does it Do?

Unions are comprised of union representatives or stewards and union members. Union representatives/stewards represent union members and work to ensure that employers comply with the governing collective agreement.

When an employer does not comply with the collective agreement, union representatives are called upon by union members to assist employees in enforcing their rights pursuant to the collective agreement. Pursuant to the Arbitration Act, 1991, S.O. 1991, c. 17 unionized employees generally must follow the grievance and arbitration procedure set out in their collective agreement.

Unions have a duty to represent their union members fairly and in a manner that is not arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. This applies to a variety of circumstances including but not limited to allegations of unjust dismissal, wrongful dismissal, human rights violations and constructive dismissal.

What is a Collective Agreement?

A collective agreement is a contract between the employer and a union that outlines the terms and conditions of employment for employees in a bargaining unit. These terms and conditions are reached through collective bargaining between the employer and the union. The agreement outlines terms of employment including terms that relate to wages and benefits, obligations and responsibilities of the employer, and often a dispute resolution process.

Can I Sue my Employer in Court if I am Unionized?

If you are part of a union in Canada, you generally do not have the right to sue your employer in court, but instead, you can file a grievance (a form of legal action) against your employer using your union to represent you.  You can file a grievance based on claims that your employer has violated your employment rights under your collective agreement (such as claims for overtime, discrimination, harassment etc.)

Human Rights

There are some circumstances where unionized employees do not have to follow the procedure outlined in their collective agreement or involve their union.

If a unionized employee’s complaint is about a breach of their human rights, they may be able to bring an application in the Human Rights Tribunal.

A complaint to the Tribunal may be made instead of following the process in an employee’s collective agreement, or in rare circumstances, in addition to it. If a grievance has been filed relating to substantially the same human rights issue, the Tribunal will usually wait to deal with an employee’s application until that grievance is resolved.

Unsafe Work

If an employee believes that their employer punished or threatened them for refusing to do unsafe work, then they may be able to make a complaint at the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Unionized employees must elect between grievance arbitration or the Ontario Labour Relations Board route.

Duty of Fair Representation Complaints

Unions do not always take every grievance that unionized employees want to pursue.  Sometimes this is due to workplace politics or other unlawful grounds.  If your union fails to properly represent your interests, you have the right to bring a complaint against your union, called a “Duty of Fair Representation Complaint”. 

If you have any questions about your rights as a unionized employee, a Toronto employment lawyer at Sultan Lawyers can advise you in understanding your rights and discussing the best option of resolving your dispute, including strategies on how to deal with your Union representatives. Contact us at 416-214-5111 or mlahert@sultanlawyers.com.


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