Managing Employees in a Unionized Environment

Understanding the Legislative Framework

The Public Service Act and the Public Service Labour Relations Act are the legislative backbone of BC government labour relations.

Public Service Act

The Public Service Act outlines processes for employee hiring, promotion, dismissal and various human resources policies. The act specifically states that appointments to and from within the public service must be based on the principle of merit and  result from a process that appraises the knowledge, skills and abilities of eligible applicants. It also calls for a six-month probationary period and allows a deputy minister to reject an employee found to be unsuitable. The legislation, collective agreements and human resources policies require that appointments be free from political and managerial patronage.

Public Service Relations Act

The Public Service Labour Relations Act (PSLRA) governs the collective bargaining relationship between the government and the unions that act as bargaining agents on behalf of public service employees. It establishes three bargaining units in the public service: a nurses' unit, a professional employees' unit and a unit for all other employees.

The PSLRA requires each bargaining unit to have two collective agreements: a master agreement applying to all employees in the bargaining unit and a subsidiary or component agreement for each occupational group. If there is a discrepancy between a component agreement and the master agreement, the master agreement takes precedent.

Other pieces of legislation impacting employment include:

Administering the Collective Agreement

The BC Public Service Agency is the agent for the Government Treasury Board when negotiating collective agreements with unions. The following collective agreements are negotiated:

  • BC Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU)
    • BCGEU Master Agreement
    • Components:
      • Administrative Services Component Agreement
      • Social, Information and Health Component Agreement
      • Correctional and Sheriff Services Component Agreement
      • Environmental, Technical and Operational Component Agreement
      • Retail Stores and Warehouse Component Agreement
  • Nurses' bargaining unit (BCNU)
    • Nurses' Master Agreement
      • Hospital Component Agreement
      • Community Component Agreement
  • Professional Employees' Association bargaining unit (PEA)
    • PEA Master Agreement

The BC Public Service Agency relies on ministry supervisory and management staff to make sure that collective agreements are administered with effective and equitable management practices.

Understanding the collective agreements will help you administer them. Do not feel pressure to hurry a decision because of artificial deadlines. Do your research first and consult with AskMyHR if necessary. Submit a service request with the category My Team/Organization > Employee & Labour Relations > Interpretation Services.

Management Rights in Public Service

In the three major master agreements, the union or association(s) acknowledge(s) that "the management and directing of employees in the bargaining unit is retained by the employer, except as this Agreement otherwise specifies." In other words, other matters remain the residual right of the employer and are negotiable only insofar as the employer is prepared to bargain them away.

Successful Labour Relations

The success of labour relations starts with a good relationship between supervisors, employees and the union steward. The trust and respect supervisors build in those relationships will lead the way in labour relations. For tips on building and maintaining successful labour relations, view Managing Relationships in a Unionized Environment

Remember that union stewards remain public servants covered under the Standards of Conduct and their behavior must be appropriate at all times. Stewards may challenge or question a decision, but can’t obstruct the employer's management rights to run a meeting or operation. Stewards may not respond on behalf of an employee where management is seeking information directly from that employee.

Supervisors should be aware that the complaint resolution processes outlined in collective agreements are intended for legitimate purposes and are not to be used inappropriately or to undermine management.


Every collective agreement includes a dispute resolution process when disputes are outstanding. This is usually referred to as the grievance process. Supervisors should review the pertinent article(s) in the appropriate collective agreements. These vary.

Grievance Process for BCGEU

Step One

If the employee's initial concern is not resolved, the grievance process is initiated within the time limit described in the collective agreement.

Step one is an informal meeting between the aggrieved employee and the local supervisor. The two respectfully discuss and listen to each other, and ask questions for clarity. An objective, problem-solving approach determines if a mutually acceptable resolution is possible. The employee has the option of having a union steward present, but this is not mandatory. A grievance form is not necessary at this stage.

The supervisor is encouraged to take time to investigate the matter. When the facts clearly indicate the issue should be resolved in the employee's favour, offer to resolve the grievance.

Note that what's appropriate may not make the employee happy or satisfied. If a resolution is not possible, deny the grievance. Communicate your decision in a timely, professional manner. As a supervisor, you are an integral part of the management team and your decision can affect the entire ministry. Prepare a written statement of all that occurred. If the grievance proceeds, it is useful to have this documentation.

If the complaint is not resolved at this informal level, the employee may proceed to step two of the grievance process.

Step Two

Step two grievances are filed in writing by use of a grievance form and are presented by the union steward to the employer designate within the appropriate time limit.

Grievance forms should be presented to the designated ministry representative (identified in the ministry delegation matrix), but this may not always be possible. If presented to the local exclusion, the supervisor should forward the grievance to the ministry's step two designate immediately. Employer step two designates are always excluded supervisors, but an individual cannot be both the step one and step two designate on a particular file.

Once a grievance is formally submitted, all further discussions by the supervisor on that matter are held with the union steward, or with the union steward present. However, the grievance does not stop operational discussions with the employee, nor does change the disputed action such as  disciplinary action.

Within 21 days of receipt of a BCGEU grievance, the ministry's designate and the union representative must meet to respectfully discuss the facts and attempt to resolve the grievance. The grievor may or may not be present and the union steward may serve as the union representative. Depending on the circumstances and the nature of the complaint, the parties may be able to have a more frank discussion without the grievor present. Following the meeting, and within the time limit, the ministry designate must reply to the grievance in writing (step two response).

At any time during the grievance process, the supervisor may consult with a human resources adviser. Often the consultation occurs before the step two response is sent.

If the matter is not resolved at step two, the union may submit the grievance to arbitration within the time limit. At this point, the BC Public Service Agency assumes conduct of the grievance and leads the process in consultation with the ministry designate.

Nurse supervisors should be aware there is a step three in the grievance process for BCNU.


If a grievance cannot be resolved, dispute resolution in the form of arbitration is available. This process is mutually agreed to by all parties involved and allows for a resolution of grievances by a neutral third party who makes a binding decision. The BC Public Service Agency represents the employer and will do so in consultation with the ministry.

For BCGEU: Before reaching arbitration, a grievance may go to case conference. Held three times a year, case conference brings together the employer representatives (BC Public Service Agency) and the union representatives (directors and staff representatives) to discuss grievances that have been filed at arbitration. These discussions are resolution-oriented, based on each party's understanding of the case facts. During this part of the process, the parties may come to a resolution without going to arbitration. 

If the grievance is not resolved, arbitration is scheduled. Ministry supervisors that are involved in the issue are critical to preparations for arbitration and may serve as witnesses at the arbitration hearing.

Types of Arbitration

Expedited Arbitration

This quicker arbitration process facilitates the settlement or resolution of certain types of grievances outside the lengthy and costly formal arbitration procedure. Resulting decisions are not published and don't set precedence other than for that particular case. They cannot be referenced for any other matter.

Formal Arbitration

This procedure is used for certain types of grievances such as suspensions over 20 days, rejection on probation, demotions, dismissals and policy grievances, and disputes requiring presentation of extrinsic evidence. Decisions are published in law libraries and are precedent-setting. They can be referenced in other cases if the principles are relevant.