What Unions Do

What Does A Union Do?

The most basic function of a union is to give a collective voice to workers when dealing with their employer. A written contract between workers and their employer lays out the terms and conditions of work, including benefits, holidays, and wages. Union members decide together what issues are most important to them and then a bargaining committee meets with the company to negotiate. Over 95% of the time a contract is agreed upon without a strike or lockout.

Collective Gains for Society
When the economy is strong and workers stand together, they can make gains that are reflected in the contract. Often those gains are shared by others who work for the same company or even by those in a given sector of the economy. That is how standards are raised over time – and why today most people enjoy benefits that were unheard of in the past. Unions have won for workers not just higher wages and medical or dental benefits, but also paid vacations, overtime rates, sick time, and pensions.

Health and Safety
The struggle for health and safety on the job has been another important union goal. The right to know about the health effects of materials we work with, the right to refuse unsafe work, and the concept of joint safety committees were only won through direct job action, followed by political lobbying to ensure that these gains were extended to all workplaces – union or non-union.

Making it Clear – Around the World
Bargaining a collective agreement does not guarantee that it will be lived up to. Unions have to ensure that employers honour the terms of the contract. Usually they can do this through the grievance procedure, and violations of the contract can be corrected. Sometimes it can involve unions mobilizing members to stop jobs from being contracted out. And sometimes it involves huge campaigns to pressure corporations to respect the rights of workers in different parts of the world.

It is a basic role of unions to defend their members’ jobs and to make sure those who make the key economic decisions in our society properly recognize the value of work. Unions are independent of government. Acting together with our political allies, unions have been a powerful force for social justice on issues as diverse as public healthcare and affordable housing. Canada’s labour movement has a rich history of advocacy and social leadership, as well as political involvement.

What Unions Helped Achieve:

Healthcare – Unions bargained healthcare benefits for their own members, then helped to win a national public healthcare system

Employment Standards – Unions fought to establish minimum wages, work hours, and overtime pay

Holidays – At one time, workers lost income if they wanted time off – unions bargained for paid holidays and vacations

Health and Safety – Union pressure and workplace action forced governments to enoct lows to protect workers health and safety

Unemployment Insurance – the labour movement organized to demand benefits for people who lost their jobs

Paid Maternity Leave – it took strikes in the public sector to win paid maternity leave for women, now part of federal law

Human Rights – Union contracts were the first to forbid discrimination in the workplace