Union Basics

What IS a union?

A union is an organization, of which you are a member, that helps you solve workplace problems. A union empowers you and gives you skills – many of which transfer to other areas of your life. A union has the resources to back you up, and the expertise in law, health and safety and human rights to make sure your employer treats you with respect and integrity.

When you join OPSEU, you work together with your colleagues to make change happen. OPSEU is a dynamic force that draws on the experience of its members in many different circumstances to help everyone move forward. Your union dues pay for staff resources; they pay for lawyers to fight legal battles; they pay for training so you can become an effective advocate yourself. But a union also depends on active members in the workplace.

A union is a team, involving its members, their local leaders, and the union’s staff resources and expertise. OPSEU’s strength is in its members, and in the resources that back them up.

What is OPSEU?

OPSEU represents approximately 180,000 members across Ontario. They are full- and part-time workers, young and old. They trace their ancestry to all parts of the globe – as diverse a group as you could imagine. Our members work for the Ontario government, inside community colleges, for the LCBO, in the health care sector, and they are employed in a wide range of community agencies within the broader public sector. OPSEU has a long history – back to 1911 as the Civil Service Association of Ontario. Over the years, OPSEU has helped improve conditions for all Ontario workers, not just the ones it represents. Thanks to the efforts of OPSEU and other unions, workers in Ontario have shorter work weeks, higher wages, improved benefits, pay equity, stronger health and safety protection and parental leave.

You will find OPSEU members in hospitals, services for families and children, art galleries, ambulance services, school boards, municipal offices, mental health services, correctional services, and more. What they share is the power of working together.

  • Working together, we can make the changes OPSEU members want.
  • Working together, we can share experiences, expertise and a vision for a better future.
  • Working together, we can deliver results in our workplaces, in our communities, and in the wider world.

OPSEU’s resources include:

  • a head office in Toronto, with meeting spaces for member groups
  • 20 fully staffed regional offices
  • 27 membership centres, either standalone or connected to regional offices, with meeting space and equipment for the use of union locals
  • a staff of about 350, including specialists in bargaining, grievance handling, pensions, benefits, health and safety, pay equity, human rights, communications, campaigns, education, research, organizing, and more
  • a multimillion-dollar strike fund to support members, when required
  • experience in mobilizing members to get what they need
  • a strong voice at local labour councils and larger labour organizations

What does it mean to be an OPSEU member?

Being in a workplace represented by OPSEU doesn’t automatically make you a member. You have to sign a union card. Signing a card gives you a voice in your union, in your local, and across the province.

There are advantages to membership:

  • You can participate in the meetings of your OPSEU Local, and vote for its leaders.
  • You can serve in an elected position in your Local, as a steward, a member of the Local Executive or a member of your bargaining team.
  • You can take part in OPSEU educational programs.
  • You can take advantage of member discounts on cell phone packages, home and auto insurance, legal protections, some travel opportunities and tickets to professional sports events.
  • You can receive information from the union by mail or electronically.
  • OPSEU locals are funded according to the number of members they represent.

If you work in a small workplace, you may feel your voice will be drowned in the sea of larger Locals, but every OPSEU Local, no matter how small, has at least one representative at the union’s annual Convention where all the major decisions are made. Every Local can take part in education programs. Every Local has a vote in the union’s leadership elections. If you speak up, OPSEU will hear you.

Do I have to pay dues?

Under Ontario law, yes. Everyone in the bargaining unit, member or not, is covered by the collective agreement. Member or not, you get the wages and benefits negotiated by the union. Member or not, you get the vacations and job security language. And member or not, the union is obligated to represent you if you have a grievance.

Because you get the benefits, you must pay the dues. OPSEU’s dues, at 1.375 per cent of pay, are among the lowest in Canada. Your dues are completely tax deductible. Your dues pay for experienced staff with expertise in negotiations, human rights, benefits, pay equity, health and safety, pensions, grievance handling and much, much more. They pay for a network of regional offices and membership centres across Ontario. They pay for education programs, meetings and conferences. In OPSEU, the central union picks up all the costs for bargaining, grievance meetings and so on – including lost wages, hotels, travel and accommodation. A portion of your dues comes back to your Local to spend as you and the other members decide.

What does having a contract do for me?

It is easy to say that having a contract spells out your terms and conditions of work, but what does that really mean? It means you have a book of rules that you have negotiated with your employer; that both sides have agreed to; and that you can enforce through your grievance procedure (more on that later). Your contract will spell out your hours of work. It will say when overtime pay kicks in. It will say how much vacation you get, and how vacations increase with years of service. It will detail what the employer pays toward health plans, pensions and other benefits. It will have rules for posting job vacancies and criteria that help you plan your career path. It may spell out mileage rates or training allowances. It may cover safety equipment or uniforms. It will cover recognition of your elected union representatives as entitled to speak up for you to your supervisors without being accused of insubordination. Where once your employer gave you “privileges,” your union contract gives you enforceable rights.

How does a grievance work?

Say your contract says you get paid overtime or time off at time and a half after 40 hours in a week, and your employer insists you take it in time rather than money. You have a kid starting college and you want the money. If your employer insists on the time-off option, you go to your elected OPSEU steward and say: “I want to file a grievance.” Your steward takes down the information and together you go to the supervisor, point out what the contract language says, and ask for the money. That’s Stage 1. If your supervisor says no, you take it to Stage 2 – probably the HR department. (your contract will tell you). In this case, HR will almost certainly say yes and you get the money, But if not, you can take it to Stage 3 – an independent external arbitrator who will listen to both you and to HR and rule in your favour as the language clearly supports your claim. Without the contract, if your supervisor would rather give you time than money, you are stuck with taking the time.

Why do employers often fight unions?

Unions speak up for workers. Unions make sure that people are treated fairly. Unions make sure that all the good shifts don’t go to the boss’s favorites. Unions restrict an employer’s absolute right to set the rules. Unions also force employers to obey the law – whether it is over health and safety, employment standards or human rights. Most workers don’t know all the rights they have under the law, and employers take advantage of that. OPSEU knows your rights and can help you enforce them. Most workers don’t have the resources to stand up for the rights they know they have. Thanks to your union dues, OPSEU has those resources.

OPSEU where you work – your local

The purpose of establishing locals of the union is to encourage participation of all members in their union.
– The OPSEU Constitution

Your OPSEU local is your primary link to the union. It represents you where you work, and you elect its leaders – your stewards, your local president and other officers, your delegates to convention, and so on. It’s your first step to getting involved.

Locals have the autonomy and resources to do what they think is important for their members. You have a vote on those decisions.

What can locals do?

  • participate in negotiating collective agreements
  • process grievances to enforce the collective agreement
  • establish joint labour-management committees to resolve local or unit issues
  • control their own money
  • collaborate with other unions and community groups affiliate with local labour councils
  • organize social or community activities publish newsletters or create websites elect delegates to the OPSEU convention
  • send members for union education and training monitor workplace health and safety
  • adopt bylaws
  • help craft union policy
  • promote human rights and equity

OPSEU has three kinds of locals:

  1. single-unit locals, where all members work for the same employer at the same location
  2. multi-unit locals, where all members work for the same employer but at different locations
  3. composite locals, where members work for more than one employer at one or more locations

How do locals work?

For starters, democratically.

Local elections normally take place at membership meetings, but in special cases, there may be polling stations.

The frontline voice of the union in the workplace is the shop steward. Your local (or your unit in a multi-unit or composite local) decides how many shop stewards it needs and how they should be distributed. You elect the steward for your work area. It takes a clear majority to win.

From among your shop stewards, you elect your local executive committee (LEC). So every member of the LEC has already been elected as a steward.

Your LEC must have a president and at least two other officers (vice-president, secretary, treasurer, secretary- treasurer, chief steward, etc.). In single-unit locals, all shop stewards are automatically on the LEC.

Each unit in a multi-unit or composite local elects one or more unit stewards from among their shop stewards to sit on the LEC, and the officers are elected from these unit stewards.

Locals can define their structure in local bylaws, which must conform to the union’s constitution. Article 29 of the constitution governs locals that do not have their own bylaws.

How are locals funded?

  • Local funds come from your union dues. A portion of your dues comes back to your local.
  • OPSEU locals get quarterly rebates from the union, depending on how many members have signed union cards. Each local gets a cheque in January, April, July, and October. Composite locals get a supplement to reflect their more complex structure.
  • Rebate levels are revised annually.
  • A typical OPSEU local with 250 members would receive nearly $15,000 annually in operating funds.

What do locals spend their money on?

In OPSEU, most member expenses are covered by the central union. This includes travel, accommodation, meals and lost wages for members attending convention, education courses, bargaining sessions, grievance hearings, and the many other meetings and events that the union organizes or participates in.

That leaves local funds for things like sending extra members as observers to convention, child care or refreshments at meetings, publishing newsletters, or other things the local decides. Locals can also make contributions to their community, such as by supporting the local food bank or a kids’ soccer team. Some locals set up their own strike fund to augment strike pay from the central union. Others send fruit baskets to members in hospital. It’s up to the local to decide.

The OPSEU website – www.opseu.org

Whenever you need information, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the OPSEU website is there. A computer and an Internet connection give you access to thousands of pages of content, tens of thousands of documents and photos, and a database of grievance records. There are archives of information going back to 2010.

There is information on current campaigns, OPSEU committees, health and safety, pensions and benefits, wage settlements, the consumer price index, discounts available to OPSEU members, job opportunities, and much more.

You’ll find the OPSEU constitution there, as well as recent publications, announcements of courses and conferences, news releases, contract settlements, and so on. While it can’t tell you who your steward is, it’s a huge resource, updated at least five days a week.

In times of turmoil – such as a provincewide strike – web updates can be seven days a week and even round the clock.

You can also subscribe to OPSEU This Week, an email summary published Fridays of everything new on the site, with links to the new articles.

These resources are available at www.opseu.org

  • Power Tool: A Handbook for OPSEU Stewards
  • Health and Safety: Resource Handbooks
  • Member Education: Hands-On Education Activities and Tools Telling Our Stories: A complete guide to media relations inSolidarity: the newsletter for OPSEU stewards and activists Equitably Speaking: Human Rights and Equity News
  • Autumn View: the newsletter of the OPSEU Retired Members Division
  • OPSEU Constitution

Connect with OPSEU

From the Greater Toronto Area: 416-443-8888

Toll-free from anywhere in Ontario: 1-800-268-7376