Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Trade Union Definition:

A defined group of employees formed for the purposes of representing those employees with the employer as to the terms of a collective contract of employment.

Related Terms: Union, Labor Union, Labor Organization, Collective Bargaining

Also known as a labor union, labor organization, collective bargaining unit or, simply, a union.

At common law, a trade union was much like a general partnership, the trade union having no legal person distinct from  the members. Membership was voluntary and the members were the union.

In contemporary labour law, trade unions have separate legal personality from their members. A union may own property, sue and be sued - just like a corporation.1

The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 (UK):
"Trade union means an organisation (whether permanent or temporary) which ... consists wholly or mainly of workers of one or more descriptions and is an organisation whose principal purposes include the regulation of relations between workers of that description or those descriptions and employers or employers' associations...."
The Canada Labor Code, at §3(1):

"Trade union means any organization of employees, or any branch or local thereof, the purposes of which include the regulation of relations between employers and employees."
Similarly, §1(1) of the Ontario Labour Relations Act:

"Trade union means an organization of employees formed for purposes that include the regulation of relations between employees and employers."
In British Columbia, the labour relations statute defines a trade union as follows:

"Trade union means a local or Provincial organization or association of employees, or a local or Provincial branch of a national or international organization or association of employees in British Columbia, that has as one of its purposes the regulation in British Columbia of relations between employers and employees through collective bargaining, and includes an association or council of trade unions, but not an organization or association of employees that is dominated or influenced by an employer."
An association dominated by officers of the employer would not qualify as a trade union. In Horn, labour arbitrators wrote:

"A trade union must be an entity distinct from the employer in order to represent employees as a force contra the employer, because the interests of a trade union and an employer are inherently different."
In Canada, each of the provincial labour relations boards and their many aribtrators seems to have drafted their own little perfect definition of what a treade union is, making it challenging to present a national definition. However, what is common are three elements:
  • It must be formally in existence with a constutition and a defined membership;
  • It must have as a stated purpose, the collective representation of the group of employees in regards to the common employer; and
  • It must not be dominated by the employer.
In Lyons & Sons, Justice Lindsay warned:

"Trade unions up to a certain point have been recognized now as organs for good. They are the only means by which workmen can protect themselves from the tyranny of those who employ them. But the moment that trade unions become tyrants in their own turn, they are engines for evil: they have no right to prevent people from working on any terms that they choose."


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