Any group of eligible workers in Ontario can form a union. If 40% of the membership signs union membership cards, the Ontario Labour Relations Board will hold a vote to determine whether the union should be certified. A secret ballot is then held. 50% or more votes in favour will cause the union to be certified.

The Collective Agreement

The terms of the employment relationship between the workers and the company are then determined by the collective agreement. There is no individual right to bargain for wage increases or other terms of employment. This agreement forms the basis for all employment rights and entitlements.

Rights on Termination

The collective agreement determines all rights and remedies on termination for cause or without cause. If there is termination or other forms of discipline imposed, the worker, by union representation, has the right to grieve the decision. With union support, such a case may proceed to arbitration. At that stage the decision maker has the power to order back pay, reinstatement or any other similar remedy. Reinstatement in this process is generally considered the default remedy when there is no cause for termination found.

Just as a common law judge may order additional damages for unfair conduct, the arbitrator may also make such incremental awards for "aggravated" damages.

No Right to Sue

The union members have no right to sue in the civil courts for an employment dispute. All such issues must go through the grievance process. This is the same for "wrongful dismissal" claims. In the civil courts without union representation, an employee fired without cause can claim damages for lost income in the period of "reasonable notice". This claim is not allowed for union members. Termination without cause will likely follow a seniority system. The person to be terminated will be allowed only the severance sums set out in the collective agreement and no more. This payment must at least meet the statutory minimum.

Disputes with Union Management

If there is an issue between the company and the employee, such as an alleged termination for cause, the legal parties in the case are the union and the company. The individual person is a not a party, as they are represented by the union, which has the legal authority to make all decisions in the case. For example, the union may decide the employer's offer of reinstatement with no back pay is a fair offer to be accepted. The employee may disagree. The union must consult and discuss the issues with the employee but ultimately makes the final call on the offer.

The same issue often arises on a termination case which may possible may be headed to arbitration. The union may decide, for whatever reason, not to support the case to proceed to arbitration. It again will certainly consult with and discuss the issues with the employee. Again, however, at the end of the day, it is the union's final decision to make.

Can the Decisions of a Union be Reviewed?

The union has an obligation to allow for "fair representation" to its members. There is a potential remedy available to a disgruntled employee who has disagreed with the union's advocacy. This is a complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board of "unfair representation". These cases are notoriously difficult for the employee to win. Essentially, the worker must show that the union failed to even consider the merits of the case. If the union has consulted outside legal counsel and reviewed the case, there is virtually no chance of success for the employee's case.

Unions do offer certain protections to employees which are not available without their existence. There is a definitely good news and not so good news. Before you sign the union card and before you vote, you should understand both sides.

It is always recommended to seek advice from an experienced employment lawyer before taking action that may result in a claim for damages.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.