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  4. Stewards Guide
  5. Our democratic structure

In Unifor, every member has a voice. Every member has an equal right to say what they think the union ought to be doing, to debate issues, to elect representatives, to question their elected officers and to cast a vote in making decisions.

It’s important that stewards understand our structure

  • So that they know where to get the help they need
  • So that they can participate fully in union life
  • So that they can actively encourage members to get involved
  • So that they can explain ‘how the union works’ to our members
  • So that they can encourage all members to exercise their rights within the union and in the workplace.

Most workers don’t learn much about unions in school. Their two major sources for learning about unions are mass media, and their own experiences with unions. We don’t control mass media, but we can work to ensure that what workers learn from us makes them want to get involved.

At the very least, workers need to know that the union belongs to them and their voice and vote matters. Getting this message out is up to you.

Workers elect their:

  • steward/workplace rep
  • bargaining committee
  • other committee members
  • local union officers (incl. President)
  • delegates to Unifor Councils & Conventions

Workers vote on:

  • Whether they’re willing to strike / take workplace action
  • Whether or not to ratify (accept a contract)

Local unions

In Unifor we have 750 local unions and over 3,000 workplace units.

There are two types of local unions:

  • amalgamated/composite locals that are made up of several workplace units
  • single unit locals with just one workplace. Workers in each unit elect a bargaining committee to negotiate with management a collective agreement on wages, working conditions and benefits. The members vote by secret ballot to ratify (accept or decline) a negotiated contract or agreement.

Local union members elect local officers (President, Financial Secretary, Recording Secretary, Unit Chairperson), Committee Chairs, as well as Convention and Council delegates. Everyone can attend local membership meetings where we discuss and vote on the priorities and policies of the local (in amalgamated locals, members also hold unit meetings to deal with their workplace or employer-specific issues). Local union committees may include: Health and Safety; Women’s; Human Rights; Pride; Political Action; Environment; Constitution & By-laws; Young Workers; and many more. There’s room for everyone to get involved.

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Who’s who at the local level?

Every local union has an elected executive to run their day-to-day affairs.

President: Coordinates all the work of the local. Plans and chairs regular meetings where workers can discuss and debate important workplace and community issues. Carries out Unifor policies and priorities voted on by members.

Vice-President – the president’s right-hand person. Locals with several hundred workers usually have more than one vice-president.

Recording Secretary Takes minutes of local meetings, handles correspondence and maintains the union’s records.

Financial officer (sometimes called the treasurer or secretary-treasurer): Collects all monies paid to the local union, including membership dues, and is responsible for properly accounting for all local union spending. Also maintains the membership database.

Bargaining Unit Chairperson: Oversees grievances and the collective bargaining process.

Steward / Workplace Representatives: Elected by their co-workers to investigate and resolve workplace problems, and handle grievances. Stewards are the ‘front-line’ of Unifor.

Bargaining Committees: Elected by the workers to represent them in negotiations with employers.

Every local union is also assigned a National Representative, a full-time labour relations expert who helps out in a variety of situations from representing members who have a grievance, to providing key support during bargaining.

Most local unions also elect or appoint Health and Safety representatives, and Local Union Committee Chairpeople. Many locals also have Women’s Advocates, Employment Equity Reps, Employee Family Assistance Plan reps, and more. All of these positions are outlined in your local union by-laws, which must be made accessible to all local union members. Members in good standing can run for any of these positions – check your local union by-laws for details..

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Quebec and Regional Councils

All Local Unions are members of a Regional Council. In addition to Quebec Council, there are four Regional Councils: British Columbia, Prairies, Ontario and Atlantic*. Each Council elects a leadership that includes a Chairperson (who also serves on the National Executive Board), Vice-Chairperson, Secretary-Treasurer, and others as determined by Council By-Laws.

Councils meet at least once a year. Delegates to Council (local union members elected by their co-workers) participate in discussion and debate on regional priorities, campaigns and policies. National Officers, Regional, Area, Industry and Department directors and staff provide reports for delegates to discuss and debate. Council Standing Committees organize conferences and meetings, initiate educational events and activities, mobilize members and make recommendations to the Council on campaigns, policies and procedures.

Regional Councils and the Quebec Council are a democratic force for union activism, solidarity, and strength. They involve and engage thousands of local union activists in the life of the union by conducting campaigns and activities on workplace and community issues, often in cooperation with progressive allies. Councils also support the National Union’s Organizing Department helping to bring new workers into our union.

* Local Unions located in the Territories or Nunavut are assigned to a Regional Council by the National Executive Board. Membership of a National or multi-regional Local Union are assigned to the Council covering their residence. The formula for delegate entitlement to these Councils is outlined in the National Constitution.

Unifor Canadian Council

The Canadian Council is the parliament of our union. Every local union elects members (called delegates) to come and participate in this annual meeting where we discuss, debate, and vote on the priorities and policies of the union, based on issues that matter in our workplaces and our communities.

At Council the National President provides an overview of the past year’s progress in collective bargaining, outlines local union and industry changes, discusses our response to changes on the political scene, links our issues with international issues, and much more. Regional, Quebec, Industry Councils and NationalStaff also report on their activities and assignments. Delegates debate and vote on these reports. Delegates vote to elect a Council Chairperson (3-year term), as well as Industry Council representatives, all of whom also serve on the National Executive Board. Elections are determined on a per capita basis (calculated by how many members each delegate represents) and are conducted by secret ballot.

Over 1200 delegates come to Canadian Council from across the country and from all different workplaces represented by Unifor. This is a tremendous opportunity for workers to get and share information to bring back to their membership. Council is conducted in English and in French, with translation. Canadian Council also includes these Standing Committees: Women, Organizing, Aboriginal & Racialized Workers, Young Workers, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and TransWorkers (LGBT), Workers with Disabilities, Health, Safety & the Environment (HSE), and Political Action.

Industry Councils

Unifor is a general workers union. We represent workers in every major industry and sector of the economy – and this tremendous diversity is one of our biggest strengths. But in addition to our common struggles, we must also pay attention to what makes each industry unique.

We have established the following Unifor Industry Councils where delegates from local unions meet to discuss changes in industry, bargaining strategies, government policy:

Aerospace Auto
Aviation Education, Technical, Office
and Professional
Energy Fisheries
Forestry Forge & Foundry
Healthcare Hospitality & Gaming

Independent part suppliers Media
Mining, Metals & Minerals Rail
Retail Wholesale Road Transportation
Service Telecommunications

National Executive Board

Our NEB is made up of nineteen elected people, all of them workers. Together they represent the diversity of the many, many workers and workplaces we represent.

The NEB includes representation from:

  • all of the regions (five Regional Council Chairpeople and three Regional Directors)
  • gender representation (as enshrined in our Constitution)
  • specified rep for Aboriginal/Racialized Workers
  • specified rep for Retirees
  • specified rep for Skilled Trades
  • three National Officers (National President, Secretary-Treasurer and Quebec Director)

The NEB meets at least three times a year and is accountable for carrying out the policies and priorities of the National Union, as determined by the membership at Canadian Council.

From local to international

Call it working together, or call it solidarity, working with other unions in our community and in our world is a big part of what makes us stronger and smarter.

  • At the local level we work with other unions in our communities through District Labour Councils (together we support community projects and bring a worker’s perspective to municipal governments).
  • At the national level we belong to the Canadian Labour Congress (together, we’re over two million workers strong) Check out www.clc-ctc.ca.
  • At the global level we connect with unions around the world (together we keep track of the activities of multinational companies, track industry changes, and share resources and strategies).

Want to know what workers in other countries who work your industry are saying and doing about workplace issues? Check out some of the groups you belong to (just by being a member of Unifor):

www.industriall-union.org (workers in shipbuilding, auto, aerospace, mining, energy, cement and more)

www.uniglobalunion.org (telecom; technology; graphical; cleaning & security workers; media, entertainment, arts and sports; gaming; private health care; and more)

www.iuf.org (food, agricultural, hotel, restaurant & catering workers)

www.itfglobal.org (transportation workers)

Unifor National Office departments & programs

All Unifor National Office Departments can be reached by calling 1-800-268-5763

National President’s Office

Unifor’s National President works to protect and advance the interests of the National Union, has full authority to direct the working of the union, leads bargaining in major auto, and reports to the Unifor National Executive Board, Canadian Council and Conventions. Assistants in the National President’s Office are responsible for bargaining in the different sectors of the union, overseeing various Unifor departments, campaigns, and staff assignments. Email: president@unifor.org.

National Secretary-Treasurer’s Office

The National Secretary Treasurer is charged with overall responsibility for the national union administration, staff relations, budget, staff training, appeals, audits of local union funds, and oversees several of the union’s departments. The National Secretary-Treasurer also plays a key role in major bargaining.

National Service Representatives

Service representatives are full-time, experienced Unifor staff members. Their primary responsibility is to assist local unions with day-to-day problems, including negotiations and arbitration. Service reps work out of Unifor offices across the country. Contact your service rep through your Area Office.

Research department

The Unifor Research Department provides information and statistics on wages, hours and other conditions of employment that are needed in collective bargaining and for lobbying governments on legislative, trade and economic issues. Our researchers also supply general economic facts for our public presentations and speedy, accurate information for use by local unions. Email: research@unifor.org.

Retired Workers

Retirement is not the end of union activity for our members. Every local union with at least 25 retired workers must have a retiree chapter. A national representative works in cooperation with the retiree chapters and councils in setting up conferences, presenting collective bargaining amendments and lobbying all levels of government to obtain justice and dignity for senior citizens on pensions, health care, housing and other issues of concern to retired workers. Email: retirees@unifor.org.

Pension & Benefits department

The Unifor Pensions and Benefits Department provides expertise in bargaining pensions, health and insurance benefits and income security plans. Department staff work with bargaining committees, assist with closures where necessary, and provide information on current benefit issues. This includes analyzing existing pension and benefit plans, reviewing the financial status of these plans, and providing assistance in developing specific proposals, providing costing information, supporting staff and committees during the process of partial and complete wind-ups, developing early retirement incentive proposals, reviewing plan language and amendments, etc. Our staff also provides research support and analysis for our campaigns for public pensions and medicare.

The Pensions & Benefits Department does extensive work on workplace issues like adjustment, training, workplace change, and responding to lean production. The Department staff support local unions with expert advice on EI (unemployment insurance), work sharing agreements, and workplace adjustment programs.  Email: pensionsandbenefits@unifor.org.


Our Communications Department works to get the union’s message out to our members and the public. We publish the newsletter Uniforum, and maintain the national web page, Facebook page and Twitter account. We release information to the press and arrange interviews with the print and electronic media on contract settlements, disputes and union policy. In addition to communicating information with members, the broader public and the media, we hold a bi-annual conference and train local union leaders and activists in effective communication techniques for membership, the public and the media. Email: communications@unifor.org.

The Unifor Legal Department provides the union with expertise in matters of law. We work closely with Unifor Service Representatives on legal interpretation of collective agreements and labour law, and we advise the National Union on legislative and policy issues.

Organizing department

The organizer’s task is to bring unorganized workers into the union. Our Unifor Organizing Department meets with workers, sets up committees of interested workers, distributes literature and represents workers who want to apply for certification (bargaining rights) before various labour boards across the country. We also work with locals to support community chapters. Email: join@unifor.org

Health & Safety

Unifor fights for better laws and information on substances found in the workplace. Our Health and Safety Department helps local unions set up programs to eliminate hazardous conditions in the workplace. We publish the Unifor Health, Safety and Environment Newsletter and we develop fact sheets on health and safety issues (we can also provide information on request). We work with the Education Department on health and safety training, and we organize conferences on health and safety, workers’ compensation and the environment.  Email: healthandsafety@unifor.org

Skilled Trades

The Unifor Skilled Trades Department works on issues including apprenticeship, lines of demarcation between trades, journeyperson cards and contracting in and out of work. We assist in negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining rights and we lobby governments and business for stronger, fairer policies on skilled trades. We work with Unifor National Representatives, Stewards and Committeepersons, Area Councils that
form part of the Skilled Trades Councils.

Women’s department

The Unifor Women’s Department supports women activists in Unifor through union education, activism, and mobilizing. We help bargaining committees, equity representatives, women’s advocates and local union women’s committees with collective bargaining and local and campaigns to end harassment and violence and to fight for equal pay for work of equal value, childcare and childcare subsidies, employment equity, and more.

We also work with the Education Department to develop programs designed specifically for women. And, we work with Council Women’s Standing Committees, hold regular women’s conferences, maintain a Facebook page for Unifor Women, and coordinate celebrations of International Women’s Day and observances of December 6th, the Day of Commemoration and Action to End Violence Against Women. Email: women@unifor.org.

Education department

The Unifor Education Department supports workers and activists in their everyday on-the-job union learning by offering courses on issues ranging from collective bargaining to social justice and human rights. We strive to provide union leaders with the training needed to represent members in the workplaces, at the collective bargaining table and in the administration of the union. Our department holds conferences, offers courses in communities across the country (one and three-day), and provides courses at our Unifor Education Centre in Port Elgin, Ontario (week long and 4-week). Courses are designed to help Unifor members and leaders get a handle on what is happening in the world, and give them the confidence to help build the union and the social movements we are a part of. We co-founded and co-host the Unifor-McMaster University Labour Studies Certificate Program.

Descriptions of all of our programs and our course schedule can be found on the Unifor National web page and the Unifor Education Facebook page. Email: education@unifor.org.


Human Rights department

The Unifor Human Rights Department is responsible for coordinating human rights training, anti-racism work and other human rights struggles in the union and the community. We can be contacted in confidence about human rights issues including harassment. Our Department regularly hosts Unifor Human Rights conferences, as well as Pride conferences and conferences for Aboriginal and Racialized Workers. We are committed to challenging all forms of discrimination, and in particular our focus is on addressing racism, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination based on disability, religion, and citizenship status. We work very closely with the Unifor Women’s Department. Email: humanrights@unifor.org and pride@unifor.org.

Young Workers

The Unifor Constitution provides for Standing Committees for Young Workers. Our Young Worker Committees help create space for young people within the union to develop confidence, skills, and knowledge to participate actively in union life, and play a stronger role in the building of the union.

The bi-annual Young Worker conference is coorganized by young activists and leaders from standing committees along with the support of the Education and other departments. Email: youngworkers@unifor.org.

Employee & Family Assistance Program – EFAP (Addiction)

Many Unifor Local Unions have bargained language to establish EFAP or Substance Addiction Representatives who members can contact in strictest confidence for help with a broad range of issues from alcohol and drug dependency to other situations where they or family members need referral to professional support and counseling. Contract language has to be bargained so that a member who needs time out of the workplace for treatment can seek help without fear of losing their job rights and in the knowledge that the benefit plan provides income replacement.

International department and Unifor Social Justice Fund

Unifor has a long tradition of active solidarity with workers beyond the boundaries of Canada and beyond the immediate personal interests of our members. This is part of our commitment to social unionism. Historically, we are identified with the United Farmworkers in California and the struggle of South African trade unions before apartheid was finally defeated.

Through our International Department we challenge free trade deals and government policies that negatively impact on workers’ rights here in Canada and around the world. We have ongoing relationships with likeminded unions and social justice seeking groups around the world (including Industriall, the International Transportation Federation, the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers, and UNI Global Union). We also join with student, environmental and justiceseeking activists in fighting the assault on democracy represented by new trade agreements and everincreasing corporate dominance.

Unifor’s Social Justice Fund offers solidarity assistance to non-profit and humanitarian projects within Canada and around the world. The fund was first negotiated in 1990. Where we have negotiated the Social Justice Fund, the employer pays into the Fund an amount per hour worked per worker. Unifor members have a direct connection to the incredible work done by our partners around the world tackling poverty, inequality, HIV/AIDS and other social justice issues. Email: international@unifor.org.

AWOC Conference June 3-5, 2016

Membership Mobilization and Campaigns

Our union is involved in politics out of choice and out of necessity. Our collective agreements build on a foundation of workplace legislation – human rights, health and safety, employment standards, labour codes, and more. Politics can either weaken or strengthen that foundation. The gains we make in negotiations are never secure. Decisions at the federal, provincial, and local government level can wipe them out. On the other hand, governments have the power to extend the principles of our bargaining breakthroughs to the whole of society through programs such as universal health care, public pensions, EI (unemployment insurance), worker’s compensation, other income security programs, childcare, and housing.

The Membership Mobilization and Campaigns Department of Unifor works with our Local Unions to income replacement. increase our union’s capacity to reach out and build a stronger base of activists willing to take part in our actions to influence government decisions. Email: politicalaction@unifor.org.

Unifor dues structure

All members share in the benefits of a good collective agreement and so together we share the costs of building a strong union that can negotiate and enforce that agreement.

This basic principle was the major issue in many strikes fought for union recognition and is now recognized in law. As a result of winning those early struggles, membership dues are deducted “at the source” from the member’s paycheque.

Delegates to the Founding Unifor Convention voted to adopt a harmonized percentage formula for monthly membership dues. The minimum dues rate is now 1.35% of pay (this means a significant dues cut for members working less than 40 hours a week). Union dues are tax deductible.

Dues are broken down into three categories of use: Local Union, Regional or Quebec Council and National Union. Here are some points that may help you in discussion with members about dues.

Young Workers Conference, July 8-10, 2016

Local Union portion of dues

A share of dues money stays in the local union. Local union dues :

  • support the activities of local union committees
  • cover wages of elected union officials who lose time off the job while bargaining, attending arbitrations, supporting workers’ compensation appeals, building the local union
  • support publication of local union newspapers
  • partially cover the expenses of local union representatives when they need to attend conferences, conventions and training programs, in order to acquire the information and skills necessary to fully represent members
  • pay for our meeting halls and offices so that we have our own places to gather, independent from our employers.
  • cover local union’s legal services, election and costs of affiliation to our central labour bodies, like labour councils and provincial/territorial federations.

All local union expenditures must be approved by the membership. Audits of all local union finances are conducted by both local union trustees and national union auditors.

National Union portion of dues

The National Union portion is approximately equal to 54% of 2 hours, 20 minutes wages (for full-time workers).

  • 10% of the national dues money is dedicated to
    organizing new workers. This makes sense because all workers deserve the benefits of belonging to a union and because we are stronger when more of us are organized.
  • Dues pay for expert staff in pensions and benefits, legal and research so that we are well-equipped at the bargaining table. This expertise also supports our demands for workers’ rights in the courts and in legislation.
  • Dues also fund the activities of the national union in everything from communications, to retired workers, to the representation of our union’s views at parliamentary committee hearings.
  • Dues help pay for training our stewards/workplace reps, our health and safety reps, our activists and our leadership so that together we’re well-equipped to be both effective and strategic.
  • Dues pay for our meetings and conventions (yes, there is a cost to democracy, but it’s worth it!).
  • Dues pay for us to make sure the voice of working people is heard in our communities, in the media, and with policy makers.
  • 10% of the national dues money goes directly to our strike fund. We pool our resources so that we can take on employers when we need to!

National union funds are subject to approval by the National Executive Board and are audited by major independent auditors.

Regional Union portion of dues

The regional portion of dues goes toward funding projects and committees that deal with issues that are particular to each region of our country, and within that, to provincial /territorial issues.

Our Unifor strike fund

This fund carries great weight when our bargaining committees sit down to negotiate with the employer. The fund is ready to support our members and their families in dignity if the employer locks us out or if workers have to strike to win a fair and equitable settlement.

A Unifor member on active payroll when a strike begins and who participates in strike activity may draw weekly strike benefits of $250 per week.

While nearly all our collective agreements are signed without a work stoppage, we defend the right to strike as a legitimate exercise of free collective bargaining. The general practice is for the membership to take the
strike votes, which must be by secret ballot and requires two-thirds of those voting to favour a strike. Thus, the Bargaining Committee is given the mandate to call a strike, if necessary, to achieve a just and equitable settlement of our demands.

Once called, a strike can only be terminated by a majority vote of the membership at a meeting that is held for that specific purpose.

Unifor never uses the threat of withholding strike benefits to force a settlement against the wishes of the members.

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A word about collective bargaining, strikes and lock-outs

As a steward / workplace representative you likely have the most direct contact with members, so you will be the one fielding their questions most of the time.

Here are some quick points to help you educate members about collective bargaining, strikes, and lockouts.

  1. Every contract has a term – usually three years. Leading up to the end of a contract, your Bargaining Committee (whom you elect) will call a special proposal meeting to get your input on priorities (called ‘demands’) for the upcoming negotiations.
  2. The union will also conduct a strike vote – this is to determine how strongly the membership supports the demands – are workers willing to strike / take workplace action over this contract?
  3. Unifor staff work with local bargaining committees and provide information on other comparable collective agreements, on industry trends, and on the employers’ finances. The local also reviews past grievances to see what areas of the contract need improvements.
  4. The bargaining committee enters into talks with the employer. (During negotiations you will get periodic updates from your elected committee. You won’t know everything that’s going on, but you will get some information especially as the strike deadline approaches).
  5. If the union and the employer reach an agreement before the deadline, then a ‘tentative agreement’ is brought to a special membership ratification meeting and the workers vote on whether to accept /‘ratify’ it (in which case it gets printed up and distributed to all workers) or to reject it (in which case the bargaining committee returns to the negotiating table).
  6. If the committee and management cannot reach an agreement by the deadline, they either agree to extend the deadline and keep talking, or the workers go out on strike (the union is in a legal strike position if the contract has expired, if the majority of workers have voted to go on strike, and if the governing labour board has issued a ‘no board report’ and appointed a conciliator). Another possible outcome is a lock-out: this happens when the employer refuses work to employees or closes the workplace to try and force a settlement on their terms. It’s not uncommon for the media to report a strike, when in fact the workers have been locked out by management!

Over 98% of all contract negotiations in Canada are settled without a strike. A strike only occurs when workers in a workplace decide together, for themselves, that enough is enough and a strike is the only option. At Unifor 10% of our dues money goes toward a strike fund. This fund carries great weight when your bargaining team sits down to negotiate with the employer. The fund is ready to support you and your family with dignity if the employer locks you out or if you and your co-workers have to strike to win a fair and equitable settlement. A Unifor member on active payroll when a strike begins and who participates in strike activity may draw weekly strike benefits of $250 per week.


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