Everyone, it seems, has been talking about unions lately. Whether it’s politicians writing new laws that undermine them (including the Federal Private Member’s Bill C-377), the threat of anti-union “right-to-work” legislation coming to Canada, or governments interfering in the collective bargaining process (Air Canada and Canada Post last year), lots of individuals are attacking those who belong to unions.

But before you think what the mainstream media reports on such issues, we think it’s important to receive all the facts. What are unions? What do they do? Why are they significant?

That’s why HSAA’s Political Action/Education Committee brings you: Unionism 101.

A trade union or labor union/association/guild is an organization of workers who have banded together to achieve common goals in key areas.

Through its direction, they bargain with the company on behalf of the members and negotiate a collective agreement. This may include The negotiation of policies; work conditions; grievances; rules governing hiring, firing, and promotions; benefits; workplace security and salary. The agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on the employer and employees.

Unions have been viewed as successors to the guilds of medieval Europe. They existed to protect and enhance the livelihoods of members, from apprentice to journeyman or craftsman. A labor union included workers but may combine several or all workers in one company or business.

In the early 1800s, many guys from large cities put together the organization known as the Trade Union Movement. The Mechanics’ Union Trade Association was the first U.S. labor organization that brought together workers of divergent jobs.

Unions have been part of the Canadian economic life since before Confederation in 1867. Skilled employees including cigar manufacturers, shoemakers, stonemasons, printers, ironworkers, and others formed the unions. They were later followed by workers, carpenters, painters, meat packers and railroad workers in dozens of industries.

Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, legalized unions because he believed workers must have the right to representation to be able to improve their lives.

Today, about 30 percent of Canadian workers belong to unions such as nurses, healthcare technologists/professionals, teachers, journalists, professional athletes and other people.

Unions in Canada are governed by provincial and federal laws, requiring them to be accountable and democratic to their members. All unions have constitutions that have to be registered with government labour boards. There are over a hundred unions in Canada. Most are connected to a larger central labour body called the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). It’s the largest democratic and popular organization in Canada with over three million members and encircles Canada’s national and international unions, the provincial and territorial federations of labour, such as the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), and 130 district labour councils.

Union Facts:

  • Unions are run by their members and their resources come from members’ dues, which can be determined by the members. Union officers are accountable to the membership and need to run for election.
  • In Alberta, over 98 percent of contract negotiations are settled without a strike or lockout. A strike is not wanted by any union. It only happens when both sides can not reach work to stop and is the last resort.
  • Unions bargain for much more than salary. They’ve fought to get rid of sweat shops, reduce the number of hours and improve health and safety conditions. Enhance and they struggle to preserve social programs such as public health care, public education, and pensions. Job safety, retraining, and elimination of racism and equality are high on their list of priorities.
  • Unions effort for all employees, not just union members. Did you realize that lots of rights and the benefits that Canadians enjoy were fought for and won by unions, things like the 40-hour work week?
  • Unions still have a vital role to play. Businesses are stronger than ever. Employees need unions safeguard the rights of workers and to counterbalance the power of companies.

Union Achievements:

There are many positive aspects of our lives today that were achieved as a result of marriages bargaining with governments and employers, including:

  • Pension plans;
  • Vacation, overtime and holiday pay;
  • Universal public Medicare;
  • Occupational health and safety regulations;
  • Student loans;
  • Right to refuse dangerous work; and
  • Maternity/paternity leave.

Many historians credit unions with the rise of Canada’s middle class and overall prosperity of the nation. Unions were mostly responsible for stimulating its growth and stabilizing the economy, by helping employees make a good wage. Because of unions, more people could afford better food houses, clothing, automobiles, and other consumer goods. Better paid and workers pay more in taxes to support the development of public services including schools, roads, clean water, police service, electricity and health care.

Unions have played a vital role in the development of the Canadian identity in its 145-year history. They continue to make certain that the folks who do the job are known for their contributions and restrict the power of the bosses. We will need to stand strong and unions, to resist efforts to silence nearly all the people, unionized and non-unionized alike.


For more information about Labour Union in Canada, you may visit their website here.