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What is a collective agreement?

Many people know what a union is and understand that it consists of a group of workers who come together for the purpose of negotiating their rights together.

However, people seem to be less clear on what a collective agreement is and the role it plays.

To put it plainly, the collective agreement is the backbone for unionized employees. A collective agreement is a signed document between the workers and their employer that spells out the rights, terms and conditions of employment. The agreement contains the rights of workers and both employers and the unionized workers have to abide by it.

What is a collective agreement?

As stated above, a collective agreement is a signed document between workers and their employer in regards to their rights, terms and conditions of employment.

However, the collective agreement is really a lot more than that. A collective agreement is the employment contract between employer and employees. The difference between the agreement/contract in the union and non-union context is that in the union context, the union negotiates the agreement to benefit not just the employer but also the unionized workers and what’s more protect their rights. When a union is not involved, often-prospective employees sign employment contracts that may be tipped in the favour of the employer.

Do collective agreements have an expiration date?

Collective agreements usually do have time limits. Depending on the labour code of the particular province or territory, a labour contract usually has a set minimum time period for which it must be valid. Often that time period is one year, as in British Columbia. However, these agreements are usually negotiated for a longer period than that.

If one or the other party want to change the terms of the agreement during the life of the agreement, it can only be done with the consent of both the union and the employer.

How do the union and the employer negotiate the collective bargaining agreement?

After the certification process is over, the union then contacts the employer, through written notice, and lets the employer know that they would like to negotiate a collective agreement.

However, if either of the parties is already part of a collective agreement they must let the other party know.

In Ontario, if the employer or union are subject to a collective agreement already, then they must give notice to bargain within these timelines:

  • Within the 90 days before the agreement is due to expire; or
  • During any other period set out in the agreement.

After notice is given and once a proposed agreement is set out union members then get a chance to vote on it. The agreement needs a certain amount of votes in order to be accepted, that amount is usually 50 per cent, but could differ in other provinces and depending on the agreement.

If you are starting a union or negotiating a collective agreement you should consult the Labour act of your province or territory for specific instructions and timelines. If you have legal questions about the process you should consult a lawyer.

Read more:

Collective Bargaining, Agreements and Negotiations: FAQ

Guide to the Labour Relations Code Province of British Columbia