Winning the Battle


“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

This seems to be the perfect proverb when applied to the successful organizing drive by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) in its persistent efforts to represent part-time college support staff.

The efforts to unionize the workforce of approximately 20,000 part-time employees took over fourteen years. The first attempts by OPSEU began in 2005. The bargaining unit was certified by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in January 2018. A first collective agreement was achieved between OPSEU and the College Employer Council in February, 2019.

This chronology of events is significant for many reasons. First, it outlines the challenging processes that unions face when trying to form a bargaining unit that included thousands of workers. Second, the workforce was transient – meaning that there was high turnover of employees from contract to contract or term to term. Support staff in Ontario’s college sector did not have the benefit of job security given their part-time status. Further, these workers did not have the procedural rights, such as the ability to file grievances or the consistent application of wage increases, when comparing these rights to their permanent, full-time unionized colleagues.

An analysis of the impact of the successful organizing drive and the collective bargaining process is outlined in a recent article posted by Canadian HR Reporter.

Click here to read the article.

This article provides us with a solid overview of the processes involved through the various steps of an organizing campaign. It also articulates some of the elements of resistance taken by the employer for this particular union drive.

As noted through the article, the union and the employer were locked in the struggle over unionization for such a long time. Now that the battle for representation and the first collective agreement is over, it will be interesting to see whether or not they are able to progress through peaceful labour relations for the next fourteen years.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the significance of having union cards signed by employees in order to be represented by a union?
  2. From the article, identify three potential benefits that unionization brings to part-time college support staff.
  3. Who is the employer for college support staff in Ontario? Who does the employer represent?
  4. In your opinion, why would the employer resist unionization for this workforce?

Reaping What Is Sown

Stuart Miles/Shutterstock

‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. This famous mathematical law is handed down to us from history by Isaac Newton, who developed it in the late 17th century. In the early 21st century, it seems this law continues to prevail, even when applied to the context of modern employee and labour relations strategies.

In January 2018, revisions to the Employment Standards Act of Ontario were implemented, resulting in numerous changes that impact the lives of workers in this province. In its messaging prior to the implementation of these changes, the provincial government stated that the revisions to the legislation were required in order to ensure that ‘workers in Ontario have the right to strong protections at work’.

In the following months, there continues to be on-going media coverage focused primarily on the increases to the minimum wage and subsequent reactions to this change. Most of the media coverage has not painted a positive picture of employer conduct in Ontario, especially as it relates to the food-service and restaurant industries.

A recent example of this type of employer conduct has resulted in the decision by employees of the Rainforest Café in Niagara Falls to unionize.

Click here to read a brief news report published by Labour Reporter.

Click here to read a more detailed article published by the St. Catharines Standard.

As we have learned from our industrial relations studies, there are a number of theories explaining why employees choose to join unions. We need to set those theories aside for a moment in order to consider the reality of the impact of poor employer conduct on employees, and the ensuing results.

When employers continue to engage in conduct that appears to contradict the law (such as dipping into employee earnings (tips) in order to subsidize mandatory minimum wages) it should come as no surprise that employees will react by finding a way to ensure the increased protections they were promised. Unionization does not happen in a vacuum. When promises are broken by an employer, employees will look beyond the boundaries of their existing workplace for support and legal strength.

Employees in Ontario have a reasonable expectation to receive their wages in accordance with the law. When this does not happen, the employer should expect to receive the union they deserve as a result.


Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were an employee of the Rainforest Café, what impact would the vote to unionize have on you?
  2. What steps could the employer have taken to avoid a vote for unionization?
  3. Identify the positive benefits that the vote to unionize may have on both the employees and the employer in this case.
  4. Do you agree or disagree with the vote taken by the workers of the Rainforest Café? Explain your rationale.

Yes to Unionization

The process of unionization can be either complex and confusing, or simple and straightforward. It all depends on one’s point of view. A case in point is the recent announcement that paramedic workers employed by the Beausoleil First Nations voted to join the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

Click here to read the OPSEU announcement.

Click here to read the news report.

Both the announcement and the news report appear to provide the same message: OPSEU representatives met with paramedic workers. The workers were asked if they wanted to join OPSEU. The workers voted yes. The process was complete.

Is it truly that simple? No, not really.

Not identified clearly in these messages are the complexities involved with determining the jurisdictional, classification, and membership issues. On the matters of jurisdiction, the news report mentions that the employer (Beausoleil First Nations) filed an objection based on the Canada Labour Code, which would apply if the workers were deemed to be federal employees. This was not successful as the workers were certified as a union by the Ontario Labour Relations Board and thus they fall under provincial legislation.

The membership and classification issues will need to be clarified to determine which positions are now included in this particular unit and which positions are excluded, based on the provisions of Ontario’s Labour Relations Act. There is a lot of work ahead for both the employer and the union as they begin to identify and establish their respective roles in preparation for bargaining a first collective agreement.

In the meantime, there are two important messages that do seem clear and straightforward. First, the paramedic workers wanted the legal protection of a union to negotiate better wages. Second, there is no evidence that the employer has acted ‘badly’ since the unionization took place. With a focus on improved wages and maintaining positive relations between the parties, hopefully these messages will continue to steer the path to constructive labour-relations progress for everyone involved.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Identify the steps and processes that are required for workers to become certified in Ontario.
  2. Besides jurisdiction, what are the distinct differences between the Canada Labour Code and Ontario’s Labour Relations Act?
  3. In your opinion, why is there a presumption that an employer will react badly once employees become certified as members of a bargaining unit?
  4. Besides the opportunity to negotiate for better wages, what other protections could a union offer to paramedic workers in this case?