Getting to know your collective agreement

What do you do when you receive your new collective agreement?

Do you read it? Or, do you simply turn to the pay schedule, work out how much money you’ll be earning, and then toss the booklet in the bottom of your desk drawer? Unfortunately, many union members treat their collective agreement as if it were an insignificant document. Yet, the collective agreement is one of the most important documents affecting your working life.

It establishes your rights on the job

It also establishes certain management rights and union rights. Therefore, if you are to exercise your rights on the job, it is essential that you know and understand what the collective agreement says about those rights. This means treating your collective agreement as the important document it is. Here are some basic steps you can take to become better acquainted with your collective agreement.


A first step towards increasing your understanding of the collective agreement is recognizing that it is a legal contract like any other. When you buy a house, you negotiate the terms and conditions of the sale with the owner and you sign a purchase agreement spelling out the rights and obligations of both parties. It is the same thing with a collective agreement. The two parties in this case are the employer and the PSAC (the bargaining agent for the employees). These two parties negotiate the terms and conditions of employment and sign a collective agreement setting out the rights and responsibilities of the employer, the employees and the union.

The signed contract is called a “collective” agreement because it is just that – an agreement that equally applies to all employees in the bargaining unit as distinct from individual contracts of employment that you would find in the case of non-unionized employees. By its very nature, the collective agreement is a major vehicle for ensuring fairness and promoting equality at the workplace.


The next step towards understanding your collective agreement is to review it clause by clause and to understand the rights and obligations of each of the parties (the employer, the employees, and the union). As you read each clause, ask yourself the following questions:

• What right(s) does the clause establish?

• Who owns the right(s)?

• What obligations or conditions, if any, must be met by the employees and/or the union for the right to come into effect?

• What obligations or conditions, if any, must the employer fulfill to give effect to the right?

Let’s see how this approach can work in practice by using the following sample clause:

When an employee is required by the Employer to substantially perform the duties of a higher classification level in an acting capacity and performs those duties for a period of at least four (4) consecutive working days, the employee shall be paid acting pay calculated from the date on which he or she commenced to act as if he or she had been appointed to that higher classification level for the period in which he or she acts.

Applying the questions as outlined above, we would come up with the following interpretation:

The clause establishes a right to acting pay.

It is the right of employees.

For an employee to be entitled to acting pay three conditions must be satisfied:

1. the acting appointment must be authorized by the Employer;

2. the employee must substantially perform the duties of higher classification level; and

3. the acting appointment must be for a period of at least 3 consecutive working days

If the above conditions are met, the employer must fulfill two obligations:

1. pay the employee acting pay equal to the pay of the higher

classification level; and

2. pay this acting pay for the full period of the acting appointment

This example shows the benefits of using a systematic approach to interpret clauses of the collective agreement. It helps you determine what your specific rights are, what you must do to be entitled to those rights, and what you should expect from the employer in recognition of your rights.


The final and perhaps most important step to increasing your knowledge and understanding of the collective agreement is to exercise or demand your rights. If you are asked to perform the duties of a higher classification – you would:

• Submit a claim for acting pay

• Ensure you receive overtime payments at the proper overtime rate

Rights may look good on paper, but they are really of little value unless we use them. After all, if we don’t exercise our rights, the employer may feel justified in saying that certain clauses in the collective agreement are not necessary and should be removed because employees don’t use those rights anyway!

REMEMBER – labour history shows us that workers’ rights are slow to be recognized, but they are very quickly lost if not well guarded! As you exercise your rights, you are also testing your interpretation of the collective agreement. In the majority of instances the employer will agree with your interpretation of the contract and will take whatever action is necessary. Sometimes the employer may dispute your interpretation.

For example, the employer may argue that you should only be paid time and one-half for certain overtime work when you think that you are entitled to double time by the terms of the collective agreement.

When this happens, an employee’s recourse is to file a formal complaint, or grievance, to challenge the way in which the employer has interpreted or applied the collective agreement. The right to grieve is a legal right and carries the full force and protection of the law. It is one of the most effective tools available to employees for protecting their rights. A grievance may be resolved to an employee’s satisfaction at one of the levels in the grievance procedure. If not, then the employee, with the approval of the PSAC, may decide to pursue the grievance to adjudication or arbitration.

Adjudication/ Arbitration is a hearing before an impartial third party who hears the case and then writes a decision which is final and binding. Whether by a decision at a level in the grievance procedure or by a decision of an  adjudicator/arbitrator, the result of a grievance is that your interpretation of the collective agreement, as applied to a particular set of circumstances, is either upheld or denied. Should the same set of circumstances arise at a future date, a determination of your rights under the collective agreement is guided by the decision on the previous grievance. However an interpretation of the collective agreement may be incorrect when applied to one set of circumstances, but may be quite valid when applied to a totally different set of circumstances.

Therefore, a good rule of thumb to follow is always seek to enhance your rights – never sell them short! In any given set of circumstances, look for the most favourable interpretation possible to place on the collective agreement.

Follow the above steps and discover your collective agreement. The exercise will not make you an instant expert, but it will help you develop a constant habit of referring to your collective agreement whenever there is a question of rights. One final reminder – USE YOUR STEWARD! Stewards are at the worksite to provide employees with advice on the collective agreement and to provide representation before the employer should a dispute arise over the interpretation or application of the contract. Working together, you can ensure that the collective agreement is widely used and respected.