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Frequently Asked Questions: Unions

David M. Brown

Co-Founder + Partner
April 19, 2023

What exactly is a union?

A union is a legally recognized grouping of workers who join together to advocate for workplace conditions through collective bargaining and exclusive representation with the employer.

How do unions enter workplaces?

In British Columbia, unions are certified through membership drives. Typically employees will contact an organizer with an established union to kick-start a membership drive. With the guidance of the organizer, workers will sign confidential membership cards.

If 55% of employees in the proposed bargaining unit sign the membership card, an application is made to the BC Labour Relations Board for certification.

If more than 45% but less than 55% of the proposed bargaining unit sign a membership card, the BC Labour Relations Board may order a representation vote.

The vote is conducted by secret ballot. If the majority of votes in favour, the union is certified.

Can I be disciplined for participating in a union certification drive?

No. Provincial and federal legislation prohibits retaliation for exercising employee rights. This includes:

1.      Firing or refusing to employ someone;

2.      Threatening dismissal or other consequences;

3.      Discriminating against a person with respect to membership in a trade union.

In addition, an employer cannot interfere with a union certification through financing, promises (vote “No”, and we’ll increase your wages…), or publicity campaigns.

What is a collective bargaining agreement and who decides what is in it?

Once a union is certified a collective agreement needs to be negotiated. This is a written contract between the employer and the union. It typically addresses wages, benefits, health and safety issues, disciplinary protocols and other workplace matters. Collective bargaining agreements generally also include procedures for addressing problems in the workplace through a grievance and arbitration procedure, joint labor-management committees and other structures.

Collective bargaining agreements normally have a term of 1 to 5 years. At the expiration of the term, they need to be renegotiated. Negotiations are conducted between the Union’s bargaining committee (consisting of representation from the local and a staff union representative) and the Employer’s representatives. Once a collective agreement is agreed to by the Committee, it is presented to the union membership for a ratification vote.

What is a strike?

A strike is when a group of workers stops working and withholds its labour from the employer. This is typically done at the time of collective agreement negotiations, and is used to put economic pressure on the employer to take some action – such as agree to higher wages. A lockout is a similar type of job action, and occurs when the employer prevents workers from working.

In British Columbia, the union can’t go on strike and the employer can’t lock out its employees during the term of the collective agreement. Even after the collective agreement has expired, the parties can’t engage in job action until after certain steps have been taken:

·         the parties have engaged in collective bargaining;

·         a vote has been held and the majority of the employees voting support a strike (or the majority of the members of an employer’s association support a lockout), and the results of that vote have been filed with the Labour Relations Board;

·         strike or lockout notice has been given to the other party and filed with the Board at least 72 hours in advance;

·         if a mediator was appointed to help the parties, at least 48 hours have passed since the mediator reported out of the dispute.

During a strike or lockout an employer often continues to run its business or operation. This normally occurs by having “exempt workers” – managers, supervisors and administrative staff not covered by the collective agreement – perform key operations.

However, the employer’s use of certain types of replacement workers is restricted. An employer can’t use the services of a person who:

·         is hired/engaged after notice to bargain was given;

·         ordinarily works at another of the employer’s place of operations;

·         is supplied to the employer by another business (a contractor) to perform the work of an employee in the bargaining unit that is on strike or locked out.

What is “exclusive representation”?

Under law, if a majority of workers votes for union representation, then the union becomes the “exclusive representative” of all of the workers in the bargaining unit. The union has a legal duty—called the “duty of fair representation”—to represent all workers, and it can be held liable before the Labour Board if it fails to fulfill its duty. “Exclusive representation” means that in most instances, workers in the union cannot hire legal counsel or other advocates to assist them in their workplace disputes – they have to go through their union.

What are “union dues”?

Dues are a fee paid by a worker to the union to help defray the cost of the union negotiating a collective bargaining agreement and handling grievances and other problems at the workplace. Under law, they are collected by the employer and remitted to Union administration.


Contact us now to discuss how we can help with your union issues!