The Trade Union and Its Members

Chapter : The Trade Union and Its Members
Stephanie Ross, Larry Savage, Errol Black, & Jim Silver, Building a Better World: An Introduction
to Trade Unionism in Canada, 3d ed (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2015) 112–17
The internal and external structures and dynamics of unions shape and inuence how
unions interact with employers, their members, the broader labour movement and the
general public. These structures are complex. The y include the union local led by elected
members and a professional paid sta, where many collective agreements are negotiated
and administered. But most locals are part of a larger structure, a parent union that pro-
vides locals with various kinds of support and organizes political action. Finally, many
union locals are connected through municipal, provincial and national federations of
unions, the labour centrals within which the decisions about the labour movement’s over-
all political direction are made. Unions strive to make these decisions about priorities,
strategies and actions in a democratic fashion. How and how well the labour movement
makes its decisions has a huge impact on the lives of workers, and on society in general.
Local Unions
The labour movement is built on local unions, which represent workers in a particu-
lar workplace or location. Individual workers rst become involved in union activity at
the local level. Sometimes they are directly involved through an organizing drive that
results in the certication of a local at their workplace. More often they nd employ-
ment at workplaces that are already unionized, and automatically become members of
the union. In , ,, workers in Canada — . percent of non-agricultural paid
workers — belonged to ,  locals in  unions (Labour Program ). Between 
and , the number of union members increased by  percent, though the number
of unions declined (from  to ) as did the number of union locals (from , to
,). This change was reected in increases in the average number of members per
union (from , to ,) and per local union (from  to ) and is part of a larger
trend wherein parent unions become fewer, and local unions become larger.
Normally, local unions are established at a particular workplace to represent one bar-
gaining unit and have their own elected executives and governing structures. But there
are locals with much more complicated structures. Some include several bargaining
Figure .: Union Membership in Local and Parent Unions, –
Year Union Members
(Percent Change)
(Percent Change)
 ,,
, , , 
 ,,
 ,,
(– percent)
Source: Labour Program, Workplace Information and Research Division 
units at a given workplace (each with their own collective agreement), which nonetheless
share a union executive and other decision-making structures, as is common in the uni-
versity sector. Others have broader regional locals that bring together workers in many
workplaces under a centralized executive, as part of what is referred to as a composite
local. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Services Employ-
ees International Union (SEIU) are examples of unions that have large locals covering
workers in the same industry or occupation within a province. The UFCW’s Local 
represents grocery store and meatpacking workers in Alberta, with ve regional oces
and province-wide collective agreements with major grocery chains. The SEIU’s Local 
represents janitors and security guards (amongst other workers) across the whole of Can-
ada. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), on the other hand, is much more
decentralized, with thousands of locals across the country, and sometimes with multiple
locals in the same workplace. The most common workplace to have multiple locals of
the same union is the university. Most Canadian universities have separate locals for
teaching assistants and contract professors, administrative sta, and custodial and main-
tenance sta respectively, even when these employee groups are all members of CUPE.
Whatever the precise nature of the local, membership provides opportunities for
workers to gain a voice in the workplace and in their union. Members have the right to
attend meetings, voice their opinions and participate in votes on union matters, volun-
teer for union committees, take part in union education programs and attend union-or-
ganized social functions. They can participate both as candidates and voters in elec tions
for union stewards (who administer and defend the collective agreement on behalf of
union members and carry forward complaints and grievances from members) and for
the union executive (which manages the day-to-day aairs of the local).
In most cases, a local’s general membership meeting (GMM) is the highest authority
in the union and has the exclusive right to make many important decisions. The GMM
is responsible for the election of ocers, committee members and delegates to external
bodies, and the discussion and ratication of the local’s policies and positions, includ-
ing bargaining demands and tentative collective agreements. Since every local union
member is eligible to participate in and vote at a GMM, the meeting is a form of mass
direct or participatory democracy. Most unions use formal rules of order to make deci-
sions and to make and pass motions proposals that, if supported, direct the union to
do something.
Trade Union Structures | :
Union activities are funded through union dues, the regular contribution that bar-
gaining unit members make to the union’s coers. Since the Rand Formula became part
of provincial and federal labour law, all union dues are deducted from members’ pay-
cheques by their employer and sent directly to the union. While some locals continue to
have a set dues fee that is the same for everyone regardless of their income, the majority
of unions have moved to a percentage dues structure while everyone pays the same
percentage of their wage, those making higher wages pay more in absolute dollars to the
union. One of the GMM’s major democratic responsibilities is to set the level of union
dues, approve the annual union budget and plan for spending, and exercise oversight of
the local’s nancial aairs.
Even though members have the right to participate in the union’s decision-making
bodies, not all of them become active in their union locals. A common complaint from
those active in local unions is that most of the membership do not participate and the
turnout at meetings is low as low as  or  percent (Craig and Solomon : ).
The exceptions are meetings at which issues that aect everyone, such as the progress
of collective bargaining, the potential for a strike vote, the possibility of an increase in
union dues, or employer initiatives that will alter conditions in the workplace, are on
the agenda. Member participation in union activities also increases in crisis situations
involving layos and plant closures or widespread dissatisfaction with the conduct of
either the local or the parent union.
Yet low attendance at union meetings and low participation in union-organized func-
tions does not necessarily indicate apathy or a lack of support for the union. Members
can keep abreast of union activities by checking with union activists to nd out what
happens at meetings. They can also relay their concerns to union stewards and others
in the union who do attend meetings on a regular basis. As well, many local unions pro-
duce regular newsletters or have websites that keep members informed of key develop-
ments, and an increasing number rely on social media to engage with members.
The conduct of local union sis prescribed by a union constitution and bylaws that
set out the rights and responsibilities of members, dene the roles of elected ocials
in the locals, and set the rules for making decisions. All locals have an elected executive.
The key positions on the executive are the table ocers usually a president, a treas-
urer and a recording secretary but there can be other ocers with specic roles, like
equity, communications, and member education, or representing dierent segments of
the membership. The local union president is responsible for administering the aairs
of the local, including chairing local meetings, ensuring the local’s decisions are carried
out, keeping members informed of activities in the broader union and labour move-
ment, and representing the local in the community. The treasurer is responsible for
managing the local’s funds and maintaining complete and accurate records of all nan-
cial transactions. The recording secretary compiles meeting minutes a written rec-
ord of the proceedings and formal decisions and handles the lo cal’s correspondence.
Together, the local executive’s role is to execute decisions made at general membership
meetings, make decisions between GMMs and report regularly to the membership on
these actions, and make recommendations for action to the members. Depending on
the local’s size, complexity and nancial resources, some local ocers have full-time

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