Employment & Labour

Strike the right chord when starting a union: Ovsyannikov

By Tony Poland, AdvocateDaily.com Associate Editor

Forming a workplace union can have its benefits, but it’s vital to ensure the proper procedures are followed during the process, says Vaughan employment lawyer Dennis Ovsyannikov.

Ovsyannikov, an associate with Zeilikman Law, says regardless of the size of the workforce, the first decision is to determine whether to join an established union or go it alone.

“There’s a great deal of flexibility — even a few employees of a particular employer could unionize their workplace,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com. “Creating a new union from scratch would give them a fair bit of latitude in terms of the rules they would follow and how it would function.

“The other option would be to join an existing organization, perhaps a provincial, national or even an international union. In that instance, the unions that are larger would generally have a professional staff that would assist in the organizational process.”

Ovsyannikov says, “It is somewhat more challenging to start a grassroots union rather than just becoming a local of a larger one that already has processes in place.”

It’s up to the organizers to decide if autonomy is more important than having an established organization representing them, he says, noting that joining an existing group “sometimes has benefits or can be a hindrance, depending on the union.”

Whatever the employees decide, there is a two-part process to forming a union, says Ovsyannikov. The group needs to sign up at least 40 per cent of the non-managerial staff before it can make an application with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

While organizers have the right to approach employees about joining the union, he says recruitment cannot interfere with normal work responsibilities and advises limiting such contact to breaks or outside business hours.

Once the board is satisfied that criteria have been met, a certification vote is held with a simple majority of 51 per cent deciding whether or not to unionize, Ovsyannikov says. Only those who vote have a say in the outcome, so those who abstain are not counted in the final tally.

“Assuming there will be no problems in terms of the procedure, then the board orders that the particular union is the exclusive bargaining agent for the entire workplace,” he says. “All employees will be represented by that union and the one-to-one relationship between the employee and the employer will no longer be in place.”

For those starting a grassroots union, Ovsyannikov suggests meeting with a labour lawyer since there are specific procedures that must be followed.

“It would be advisable in most instances to at least receive a consultation from an employment and labour lawyer to discuss what options a group of employees has and how they should proceed in terms of their organizational efforts,” he says. “Sometimes, spending a little bit of time with a lawyer upfront can save them time, expense and aggravation down the road. If they make a mistake early on, the board could reject their application, and they may need to start the process again.”

Ovsyannikov says determining how the union will function is vital.

“The employees should have a meeting and formulate their constitution and ideally bylaws that would set out the purpose of that union and what its basic structure is,” he says.

Ovsyannikov says the organizers need to determine details such as who would fill executive positions and when to hold elections.

“It would also be a good idea to keep minutes of those meetings so that when the union applies for certification that record can be filed with the board to prove those events have, in fact, taken place,” he says.

Ovsyannikov says when in doubt, it makes sense to seek advice rather than take a misstep that could derail the application.

“Our firm would certainly be able to guide a group of employees through the process,” he says.

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