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Aiming for the sky: Unions in Canada

What would your company do if faced with a union organizing drive like WestJet? WestJet has been targeted by CUPE to sign up its 2800 or so flight attendants to the union. It is understandable that the union is going after WestJet at this time. With its recent growth and upcoming changes the company is more vulnerable than it was in its roots as a more local, smaller and “family of owners” incarnation. This union organizing drive will be closely watched by union supporters, companies and politic.

ians across the nation as the winds of change continue to encroach on labour relations in Canada. The first part of this article will summarize some of the history and recent challenges to unions in Canada. The second will review the labour movement’s current targets and victories. The final section will outline some practical tips on how companies can prepare and what they can and can’t do during a union organizing drive. As your labour board jurisdiction is specific to your location and industry – please be sure to consult with your local legal representative before taking any actions.

Unions in Canada

Since 1970, the union percentage in Canada has remained at roughly 1 in 3 of employed Canadians. Union density has declined from almost 34% in 1997 to a low of 31.25 in 2011, seeming to now plateau, even swinging upwards slightly to 31.5% in 2012 (Stats Canada). However this unionization rate doesn’t really reflect an accurate picture of the private labour market. The public sector unionization rate grew and has flattened out at about 72 percent since the mid 1980’s, but private sector unionization has collapsed, from 26 percent in 1984 to 17 percent and falling in 2013 (Source: “Do Unions Have a Future” by Richard Littlemore, The Globe and Mail:  March 27, 2013).

Political and economic challenges

The challenges to unions are both economic and political. First, de-industrialization has seen a decline in the real labour force.  Second, the “right to work” sentiment holding sway across more than 23 states, including Michigan, is threatening Canada’s Rand formula in which a 1945 legal outcome decided that all workers in a unionized workplace must pay dues because whether or not they join the union, they share in the benefits. For example, the recent Ontario PC Caucus June 2012 white paper “Paths to Prosperity:  Flexible labour Markets” includes a call to eliminate the forced paying of union dues. The federal conservative government has also been heavy handed in its labour relations decisions, legislating back to work for CP Rail, Air Canada and Canada Post. The political, economic and even public opinion climate in North America is not favourable for unions.

The new union movement

Despite these current economic and political challenges, unions are still making headway in the labour market. The unions are expanding from traditional targets to include hotels, retail, food services, domestic workers, private sector healthcare workers and administrative staff in financial services. The new union social movement is seeking better public opinion opportunities by aiming to represent, or to brand themselves as representing, lower paid, immigrant, female and minority service staff rather than entitled public servants or well-paid 55 year old white males. UNITE HERE targets a younger, less traditional demographic to mobilize the public sentiment in support of unions, also aligning itself with new social movements such as the Occupy Movement and has seen some recent growth and successes.  In a recent victory, UNITE HERE, a union representing more than 47 hotels in the GTA, won a long battle with a Novotel Mississauga hotel, gaining automatic certification in 2011 because of unfair labour practices.

Communication tips during a union organizing drive

So what can you do during a union organizing drive? Communication with employees during a union organization drive provides the greatest opportunity to influence employees, but also runs the greatest risk of running afoul of the labour relations board. Companies are allowed to make assertions that they take employee relations seriously and that they prefer to work as a “family” and solve issues internally without the involvement of an external third party such as a union.  They can hold non-mandatory information or town hall meetings, they can post factual information about current employee benefits and company values and they can correct misinformation from the union.

No TIPS allowed

Organizations are not allowed to intimidate or use pressure tactics to threaten employees. For example, companies must stay clear of misinformation and threatening job loss. They must also be careful about one on one meetings with individual employees and they are not permitted to ask employees whether or not they have signed a union membership card or support the union. Making promises about future changes to wages or benefits or changing schedules, shifts and compensation during the organizing drive are not permitted. The best way to avoid automatic certification of the union or other remedial actions is captured by the TIPS acronym.  As an employer don’t: Threaten, Interrogate, Promise or Spy during a union organizing campaign. Business as usual must go on and employees must be allowed to make their own decisions about a union during the certification process.

Certification timeframes

Be aware of certification timeframes and processes in your jurisdiction. For example, in Ontario, once the union has 40% of the signatures of employees in the proposed bargaining unit, it sends an application for certification to the labour board. The labour board then sends the official notice to the employer that an application has been received. The employer then has a limited time frame to make a submission to the labour board (2 business days) about the application. For example, one submission the employer may want to make is to either expand or contract the proposed bargaining group. The confidential representation vote (50 percent plus one needed to win) also occurs very quickly (3 business days) to ensure neither union nor employer have an unfair opportunity to influence employees. With such slim timeframes companies must do their research on similar labour board cases and collective agreements and will need to have legal advisors on standby.


Whether the union drive at WestJet is successful or not, it is a serious and ongoing concern for management. Both the economic implications of unionization and the ideological struggle for positive employee and public opinion loom large in concerns that the company must address during a union certification drive. When your company and your employees are targeted by a union, remember the TIPS acronym to ensure that your communication efforts don’t get your company grounded by the labour relations board!

Marcia Scheffler M.A.
CHRP Candidate

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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