Overview

Collective bargaining is the negotiation process between a union and an employer.

The goal of the negotiation is to reach a collective agreement. This is a written agreement that sets out the employment terms and conditions for unionized employees, as well as the rights, privileges and duties of the union, employer, and employees.

Some of the steps that may be part of the negotiation process generally include:

Beginning the negotiation process

Generally, to begin the negotiation process, the union or the employer must notify the other party that they would like to begin negotiations for a first collective agreement or the renewal of a collective agreement. This is known as providing notice to bargain.

After a union has been certified, or if the employer has voluntarily recognized the union, the union must notify the employer in writing of its desire to start negotiating a first collective agreement.

If there's already a collective agreement between the parties, either can provide notice to bargain to the other, in writing, within 90 days before the agreement expires or during any period specified within the agreement.

The union and the employer must meet within 15 days from giving notice, unless they agree to a different timeframe.

Bargaining

The union and the employer have a legal duty to meet and to bargain in good faith, and to make every reasonable effort to conclude a collective agreement.

At any time during bargaining, either the employer or the union may ask the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development to appoint a conciliation officer, where applicable.

If the union and the employer reach an agreement on their own

If the employer and the union reach a new agreement while bargaining on their own, that agreement has no effect until it is ratified by a vote of bargaining unit employees (in certain circumstances, for example in the construction industry or where a collective agreement is settled by arbitration, a ratification vote is not required).

The union and the employer must also file a copy of the agreement with the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, in Microsoft Word or PDF format. This is required by the  Labour Relations Act, 1995 (LRA). Collective agreements are published on the Collective Agreements e-Library website, which houses public and private sector collective agreements filed with the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

If the union and the employer do not reach an agreement

At any time during bargaining, the union, the employer, or both may ask the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development to appoint a conciliation officer, where applicable, to meet with them to attempt to conclude a collective agreement.

In addition to making a request for the appointment of a conciliation officer (a step that is required under the LRA for parties to put themselves in a legal strike/lock-out position) if the union and the employer don't reach a collective agreement, they also have other options to settle their collective agreement. They can:

  • continue bargaining
  • put the employer's last offer to a vote, if the employer decides to initiate one
  • jointly agree to voluntary interest arbitration
  • jointly agree to retain the services of a private mediator

Conciliation

Conciliation is a process by which a conciliation officer is appointed by the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development to meet with the union and the employer to attempt to conclude a collective agreement.  In that meeting, the conciliation officer tries to help the union and the employer resolve their differences so they can reach a collective agreement.

Most parties (except, for example, those governed by Part IX of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997) must go through the conciliation process before engaging in a strike or lock-out or the next step in bargaining (for example, interest arbitration). 

Generally, if your sector or industry is only regulated under the LRA, you must meet with a conciliation officer before you may legally strike or lock out.

If conciliation results in an agreement

If the employer and the union settle their differences concerning the terms of the collective agreement during conciliation, the conciliation officer reports the results to the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development. A ratification vote needs to be held before the new agreement can have effect.

The union and the employer must also file a copy of the agreement with the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, in Microsoft Word or PDF format. This is required by the LRA. Collective agreements are published on the Collective Agreements e-Library website, which houses public and private sector collective agreements in Ontario filed with the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

If conciliation does not result in an agreement

If the union and the employer don't reach an agreement during conciliation, the conciliation officer will report the outcome to the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development and the minister will send a written notice to the union and the employer.

Typically, this notice will inform the parties that a board of conciliation will not be appointed. This is commonly known as a "no-board". Less commonly, the notice will inform the parties that the process to appoint a board of conciliation (a three-person panel that attempts to help the parties agree on the matters referred to the board of conciliation) has been started.

After the minister sends the notice, the union and the employer continue to have a duty to bargain in good faith and attempt to reach an agreement. Until a collective agreement has been concluded, the union and the employer have different options depending on the circumstances, including the following:

  • If the parties are able to engage in a legal strike or lock-out, the release of the "no-board" notice begins the countdown to the date on which either the employer or the union could begin a legal work stoppage. See sections 79 and 122 of the LRA for rules related to the release of no-board notices, conciliation board reports, and communication by the minister.
  • If the parties are negotiating their first collective agreement, the union or the employer can apply to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to direct them to interest arbitration to settle the collective agreement in certain circumstances. The Board will determine whether to make that direction. 
  • If the parties are not able, or have a limited ability, to strike or lock out, the release of the "no-board" notice in a compulsory interest arbitration or essential services framework generally enables them to proceed to interest arbitration to resolve the dispute, where applicable.
  • Parties may agree to participate in voluntary interest arbitration
  • Employers may request a last-offer vote

Further assistance from the ministry

After the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development issues a no-board notice, the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development can provide further assistance to help the union and the employer reach an agreement and avoid a work stoppage, through mediation. Both parties must voluntarily agree to this assistance.

Often, the union and the employer discuss the possibility of mediation with the conciliation officer at the end of conciliation, if conciliation has ended without reaching an agreement. As well, a mediator will generally contact the union and the employer after the minister's notice has been released to offer assistance, whether or not mediation was discussed at the end of conciliation.

Strikes and lock-outs

Before a legal strike or lock-out

Unions and employers regulated under the LRA must do the following before they may legally engage in a work stoppage:

  • The collective agreement between the union and employer must be expired, or the union and the employer must be negotiating a first collective agreement
  • The union and employer must:     
    • be in a sector that has the ability to strike or lock out
    • meet with a conciliation officer appointed by the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development
    • receive a no-board notice or a notice of a conciliation board's report from the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development
    • wait until the 17th day after the day the no-board notice is released (or wait until the 10th day after the day a conciliation board's report is released)
  • The union must also hold a strike vote and the majority of the votes must be in favour of going on strike. This doesn't apply to employees in the construction industry or those doing maintenance who are represented by a construction-related union if they or another employee in the bargaining unit were referred to the employer by the union.

When a legal strike or lock-out may begin

A legal strike or lock-out may begin on the 17th day after the day the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development releases the no-board notice to the employer and the union.

For example, if the date on the notice was August 1, the employees may legally strike and the employer may legally lock out on August 18.

While the minister rarely appoints a board of conciliation, when that occurs, a strike or lock-out may begin on the 10th day after the day the minister releases a conciliation board's report to the parties.

See sections 79 and 122 of the LRA for rules related to the release of no-board notices and conciliation board reports by the minister.

Participating in a work stoppage

Ability to participate in a strike or lock-out

Most employees and employers regulated by the LRA are able to participate in a legal strike or lock-out, as long as they meet the necessary conditions.

Interest arbitration

Some employees and their employers are not able to engage in a legal strike or lock-out. Instead, they must resolve their differences through interest arbitration. These include:

Ability to participate in a strike or lock-out if there's an essential services agreement in place

Some employees and their employers have a limited ability to strike or lock out. In these circumstances, the union and the employer are required to sign an essential services agreement that addresses the continued delivery of identified essential services in the event of a strike or lock-out. These include:

Interest arbitration

Interest arbitration is a type of arbitration that is used to resolve collective bargaining disputes.

During interest arbitration, a neutral third-party (depending on the circumstances this could be a single arbitrator, or a board of arbitration consisting of an employer representative, a union representative, and a chair) hears submissions and evidence from the union and the employer on matters that the parties have not been able to settle in their negotiations and issues a decision. The decision of an arbitrator or arbitration board is final and binding.

Interest arbitration is mandatory for some parties, while others may choose to participate in interest arbitration. If parties are negotiating a first collective agreement, they may also choose to apply to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for first agreement arbitration.

Interest arbitration is the mandatory way to achieve a collective agreement for parties without the ability to strike or lock out, such as employees of hospitals as defined in the HLDAA,  as well as firefighters, police, correctional officers, and TTC employees.

Parties that have the ability to legally engage in a strike or lock-out can jointly agree to participate in voluntary interest arbitration.

Request an interest arbitration appointment

Parties that are regulated under the Hospital Labour Disputes Arbitration Act or the Crown Employees Collective Bargaining Act, 1993 can request that the minister appoint a single arbitrator, or a union or an employer representative (also called a nominee), or a chair to a board of arbitration.

Send your request:

  • by email to DRS.Director@ontario.ca
    Please include "Request for interest arbitration appointment" in the subject line and outline your request in the body of the email.
The ministry is not currently accepting requests by mail or fax.

Request the appointment of a conciliation officer

The employer or the union may request that the Minister of Labour appoint a conciliation officer if notice to bargain:

  •  has been given by the employer or the union, or
  •  has not been given but the parties have met and bargained

If you're bargaining your first collective agreement, please include with your request:

  • a copy of the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) certification or voluntary recognition agreement
  • a copy of the written notice to bargain, if it has been given

If you're bargaining to renew an existing collective agreement, you must include a copy of the most recent collective agreement in Microsoft Word or PDF format with your request (this is mandatory under the LRA). Please also include with your request:

  • a signed copy of the signature page from the most recent collective agreement
  • a copy of the written notice to bargain, if it has been given

Download form to request a conciliation officer

Submit online

To submit the request:

  1. Fill out the form and save it to your computer.
  2. Click "Submit Form" within the form itself.

Please note, you will need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader (version 10.0 or above) to do this.

Submit by email

Send your email to DRS.Director@ontario.ca. Please include "Request for conciliation officer" in the subject line and attach a copy of the completed form, along with the required and relevant information.

You cannot submit by email if the total size of all attachments is greater than 10 MB.  If this is the case, submit online instead.

The ministry is not currently accepting requests by mail or fax.

File your new collective agreement

Once an employer and a union have reached a new collective agreement, they must file a copy of the agreement with the Minister of Labour, in Microsoft Word or PDF format. This is a requirement under the LRA.

Collective agreements filed with the minister are published on the Collective Agreements e-Library website, and are the source of data for Collective Bargaining Ontario, a website featuring resources and tools that provide neutral labour relations information and trends in Ontario through interactive graphs and charts, searchable databases and reports.

Submit online

Submit your new agreement through the collective agreement submission page.

The ministry is not currently accepting submissions by mail or fax.

Terms and definitions

Bargaining unit

Generally speaking, a bargaining unit is a specific group of employees that is appropriate for collective bargaining with an employer, and to whom the terms and conditions of employment in a collective agreement apply.

The LRA defines bargaining unit as "a unit of employees appropriate for collective bargaining, whether it is an employer unit or a plant unit, or a subdivision of either of them."

The parties engaged in collective bargaining may agree on the make-up of the unit. If they cannot agree, this issue may be determined by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The bargaining unit may also be amended in the collective agreement.

Collective agreement

The LRA defines collective agreement as "an agreement in writing between an employer or an employers' organization, on the one hand, and a trade union that, or a council of trade unions that, represents employees of the employer or employees of members of the employers' organization, on the other hand, containing provisions respecting terms or conditions of employment or the rights, privileges or duties of the employer, the employers' organization, the trade union or the employees, and includes a provincial agreement and does not include a project agreement under section 163.1."

In summary, a collective agreement is a written agreement that sets out the:

  • employment terms and conditions for unionized employees (for example, wages, hours, working conditions and benefits)
  • rights, privileges and duties of everyone involved (the employer, union and employees)

Under the LRA, a collective agreement must include terms about:

  • collecting and paying union dues
  • how grievances and differences between the parties will be settled through grievance arbitration
  • there being no strikes or lock-outs during the life of the collective agreement  
  • recognizing that the union listed in the collective agreement has the exclusive right to bargain on behalf of the employees in the unit that it represents

Strike

Generally speaking, a strike is a collective action by employees to stop or curtail work.

The LRA defines a strike as including "a cessation of work, a refusal to work or to continue to work by employees in combination or in concert or in accordance with a common understanding, or a slow-down or other concerted activity on the part of employees designed to restrict or limit output."

Lock-out

Generally speaking, a lock-out occurs when an employer closes a workplace, suspends work or refuses to continue employing a number of employees during a labour dispute.

The LRA defines a lock-out as including "the closing of a place of employment, a suspension of work or a refusal by an employer to continue to employ a number of employees, with a view to compel or induce the employees, or to aid another employer to compel or induce that employer's employees, to refrain from exercising any rights or privileges under this Act or to agree to provisions or changes in provisions respecting terms or conditions of employment or the rights, privileges or duties of the employer, an employers' organization, the trade union, or the employees."

Strike vote

A strike vote is a secret-ballot vote taken by the union. It is one of the conditions that must be met before employees represented by a union may legally go on strike (except for employees in the construction industry and those doing maintenance who are represented by a construction-related union if they or another employee in the bargaining unit were referred by the union).

For parties with a collective agreement, no legal strike may occur unless the vote is held 30 days or less before the agreement expires or at any time after the agreement expires. More than 50 per cent of those voting must vote in favour of the strike for employees to engage in a legal strike.

Under the LRA, all employees in a bargaining unit, whether or not they are members of the union, are entitled to vote.

Last-offer vote

At any time before or after a strike or lock-out begins, an employer may ask the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development to direct a vote of the employees in the affected bargaining unit to accept or reject the employer's last offer to the union on all matters remaining in dispute between the parties.

This request can only be made once in a round of collective bargaining. Such a vote is commonly called a last-offer vote, a final offer vote or a supervised vote. If requested to do so by the employer, the minister must direct the vote – except in the construction industry where the minister's authority to direct a vote is discretionary.

If the parties do not have the ability to engage in a strike or a lock-out, an employer cannot request a last-offer vote. A request for a last-offer vote or the holding of the vote do not affect time limits or periods set out in the LRA.

Request a last-offer vote

An employer may request a last offer vote under section 42 of the LRA by following these steps:

  1. Prepare a letter addressed to the Minister of Labour or to the Director of Dispute Resolution Services.
  2. Include a copy of the last offer the employer made to the union.
  3. Include the contact information for the union, including email and mailing addresses, and phone and fax numbers.

Send your request:

  • by email to DRS.Director@ontario.ca
    Please include "Request for Last Offer Vote" in the subject line and attach a PDF copy of your last offer, along with the relevant union contact information.

    You cannot submit by email if the total size of all attachments is greater than 10 MB.

The ministry is not currently accepting requests by mail or fax.

When the minister directs that a vote be held, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) arranges and conducts the vote. Typically, the OLRB requires the employer to notify employees about the voting arrangements.

From the time the minister receives the request (including the last offer and the union's contact information), it typically takes about one week to 10 days for the OLRB to arrange and hold the vote.

Ratification vote

Once a union and an employer have reached a tentative collective agreement, the union must ratify the agreement.

Generally speaking, bargaining unit employees ratify an agreement through a secret-ballot vote in which the majority of those voting vote in favour of ratification.

The requirement to ratify does not apply to agreements that:

  • are ordered by the Ontario Labour Relations Board
  • are settled by interest arbitration
  • reflect an offer accepted by a last-offer vote, or
  • pertain to employees in the construction industry or employees doing maintenance represented by a construction-related union

The way the employer ratifies the agreement is determined by the employer and is not set out in the LRA.

Role of the Ontario Labour Relations Board

The Ontario Labour Relations Board is an independent adjudicative tribunal, at arm's length from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development . The Board mediates and adjudicates a variety of employment and labour relations matters under a number of Ontario laws, including the LRA.

Various issues related to the collective bargaining process (for example, certifying unions and establishing bargaining rights in a workplace) should be referred to the Board and not the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development .

Visit the Ontario Labour Relations Board website for more information about the types of matters addressed by the Board.

Updated: July 30, 2021
Published: September 17, 2019