Introduction to Labour Relations Process

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The labour relations process that produces a union-management relationship consists of three phases: union organizing, negotiating a collective agreement, and administering or enforcing the collective agreement.

Phase One of Labour Relations Process: Union Organizing

In phase one of the labour relations process, a non-union employer becomes unionized through an organizing campaign. The campaign starts either internally, by unhappy employees, or externally, by a union that has picked the employer for an organizing drive. Once workers and the union have made contact, a union organizer will try to convince the majority, if not all, of the workers to sign membership cards. By obtaining signed membership cards, the union is able to provide the labour relation with proof of the workers’ interest in having the union represent them.

In many cases, employers resist the organizing campaign by speaking out against unions in letters, posters, and employee assemblies. However, it is illegal for employers to interfere directly with the organizing campaign or to coerce, intimidate, or threaten employees into not joining the union.

Once the union has a sufficient number of signed membership cards, it submits an application to the applicable labour relations board to be certified as the exclusive bargaining agent for a specific unit of employees. After receiving the union’s application for certification, the labour relations board notifies the affected parties, i.e., the employer and the employees, and schedules a time and a date for eligible employees to vote on whether they want to be represented by the trade union or not. Supervisors and managers cannot participate in this voting process.

The vote is conducted by an officer of the labour relations board. Both the union and the employer are entitled to have scrutineers present during the voting process.

If the majority of the employees vote for the union, the labour relations board certifies the union as the exclusive bargaining agent for the employees who had been designated as eligible voters. The employer then has to bargain with the union over wages, hours of work, and other terms of employment and come to an agreement on these terms. The resulting agreement is often referred to as the collective agreement.

Phase Two: Negotiations

The negotiations that take place between the employer and the union in order to reach an agreement is generally referred to as collective bargaining. Typically, both management and union negotiation teams are made up of a few people. One person on each side acts as the chief spokesperson. Bargaining begins with union and management negotiators setting out a list of contract issues that will be discussed, with the union and the employer meeting face-to-face and exchanging written proposals. Demands, proposals, and counterproposals are exchanged during several rounds of bargaining in the labour relations process. Any contract that results from the negotiations between the union and the employer must be approved by top management and ratified by the union members. Once the agreement is approved by both sides, the collective agreement becomes a legally binding contract that covers such issues as union security, management rights, wages, benefits, and job security.

Phase Three: Enforcement

The union’s main means of enforcing the collective agreement is the grievance procedure outlined in the collective agreement. A grievance is a formal complaint by an employee or the union that management has violated some part of the contract. Under a typical contract, the employee starts by presenting the grievance to the supervisor, either in person or in writing. If the problem cannot be solved at this point, the grievance is put in writing. The employee, one or more union officials, the supervisor, and perhaps the plant manager then discuss the grievance. If the matter still cannot be resolved, another meeting takes place with higher-level representatives of both parties present. If top management and the local union president are unable to resolve the grievance, it proceeds to arbitration.

Arbitration is the process of settling a labour-management dispute by having an independent third party, either a single arbitrator or a panel of arbitrators, make a decision that is final and binding on the union and employer. The arbitrator reviews the grievance at a hearing and then makes the decision, which is presented in a document called the Arbitration Award.

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