What Do Unions Do?

Unions have a long tradition in Canada. Four million workers are part of a union, which equals nearly 30% of the Canadian workforce. The benefits include a fair and safe workplace, better wages and a supporting community. Moreover, unions can be affiliated with umbrella organizations like the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC), organized in a federation or operating independently.
One of the key characteristics is the democratic structure of unions, which gives members tools to shape the direction of the union. 

History of Canadian Unions

Canada’s labor movement has achieved some important goals for today’s workers in the last 150 years. It includes overtime pay, minimum wages, protection from discrimination and harassment, maternity and parental leave, workplace safety standards and vacation pay.

Milestones in Canadian union history are for example:

  • 1872: Demand and strike for a shorter work-week by the city’s publishers, which resulted in the Trade Union Act and thereby the legalization of union activities
  • 1919: Winnipeg general strike – the largest general strike in Canadian history 
  • 1940: Adoption of an unemployment insurance system – today’s Employment Insurance (EI)
  • 1945: Windsor’s Ford strike which gave way for more financially secure unions and more
  • 1956: Founding of the Canadian Labor Congress, a nationwide labour organization working for the rights of their members
  • 1964: Introduction of the Industrial Safety Act which focuses on the safety and workplace health of workers
  • 1965: The government extends the collective bargaining rights to the public service
  • 1971: Improving the conditions for maternity leave, paternity leave or parental leave, including parents who adopted children

Structure and Governance of Unions

The aim of every union is to represent the members’ rights to their employers and lobby to improve the working environment. Unions offer a democratic structure, which allows members to influence the decision-making process. Canadian federal and provincial legislation gives details about the rights and responsibilities of workers and unions.

In 2015, Canada had a total number of 776 unions. 45.1% of unionized members are comprised in the eight largest unions. Five of these are national union, and three are international. National unions represent the rights of the members only nationally whereas international unions do it on an global scale. They all represent 100,000 or more workers each. 


Unions work from the grassroots and have local unions in their fields of operation. These locals can belong to district chapters and a provincial chapter. If the union is just operating on provincial level, the provincial chapter is the highest executive. If it is working nation-wide, the provincial chapters are structured within a national executive. As mentioned before, some unions also work internationally so they also elect officers for the international executive and committees.

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Elections in Unions

Since unions are democratic organizations, elections are an essential part of every union. In general, larger unions operate on different levels and have an executive board on each.

Locals elect their executive board and most of the times delegates, which then elect representatives and an executive board for the district chapter. Districts go on and elect delegates, which represent their members in elected provincial executives.

The union’s national committee is often comprised of elected officers and president from local and/or provincial chapters.

Other elections

Unions not only elect officers for their executive board and delegates but also other positions. Members can elect international officers if the union is operating internationally. Besides, locals can elect chief stewards who represent the union and member’s interests at their workplace.

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