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 the structure for employee hiring, promotion, dismissal and various human resources policies that support these areas. The act specifically states that appointments to and from within the public service must be based on the principle of merit and be the result of a process designed to appraise the knowledge, skills and abilities of eligible applicants. It also establishes a six month probationary period and allows a deputy minister to reject an employee considered unsuitable. The legislation, collective agreements and human resources policies require that appointments must 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 which 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 also requires that each bargaining unit have two collective agreements: a master agreement applying to all employees in that bargaining unit and a subsidiary or component agreement for each occupational group. Note that 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 the

Administering the collective agreement

The BC Public Service Agency is the agent for Treasury Board when negotiating collective agreements with the 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 heavily on ministry staff from the first level supervisor and up to ensure that effective and equitable management practices are used in the administration of the collective agreements.

An understanding of the collective agreements will help supervisors administer the clauses:

  • Do not feel pressure to hurry and make a decision because of artificial deadlines. Supervisors should have a clear understanding of collective agreements
  • Do the research first to get information and then consult with AskMyHR if necessary

Management rights in public service

Employer rights in each of the three major master agreements confirm that the union or association(s) acknowledges 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, those 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 establishing a good relationship with employees and the union steward. The trust and respect supervisors build within those relationships will lead the way and impact labour relations.

Remember that union stewards are still public servants covered under the Standards of Conduct and behavior must be appropriate at all times. While they may challenge or question a decision, they cannot obstruct the employer's management rights to run a meeting or operation. They also may not respond on behalf of an employee where management is seeking information from that employee.

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

Make sure you

  • Develop good communication with the employees. An agreement may expire but the relationship is ongoing, so
    • Encourage discussion
    • Listen carefully
    • Explain answers in detail
  • Carefully explain more important actions and decisions before putting them into effect, after making your decision
  • Are aware of managerial rights. You should preserve them through use and keep them in effect, but don't flaunt your power
  • Explain in detail the change and the reasons for it, in advance of a change in practice
  • Treat every employee fairly, impartially and respectfully
  • Learn how to gain employee cooperation and trust
  • Establish a good working relationship with the union steward. The steward has a job to do on behalf of the members, so try to respect his/her position. In return, insist that the union steward respect your position as a supervisor and employer representative because you have obligations as well
  • Honour all provisions of the collective agreement and human resources policies. If both the employer and the union considered a specific clause warranted negotiations, it deserves your careful administration

When you do not have a grievance to discuss with the union steward, sit down in a private setting and discuss the following:

  • At all times, conduct by both of you must be in accordance with the Standards of Conduct for public service employees
  • Each of you may make errors that will need to be corrected. These are a normal part of conducting business and tolerance of each other is necessary
  • Accept that because of the nature of the respective positions, you will have different views but will still strive to agree, when possible, on middle ground
  • Come to an agreement that you will deal with each other with respect. Agree to keep personality differences out of the discussion. Even without agreement, the supervisor should deal with the union in this way
  • Accept that on some issues there will be no middle ground. There are avenues to resolve these impasses. A failure to agree is not the end of the world
  • Agree that each of you will attempt, wherever possible, not to embarrass the other and, when successful in a grievance, not to rub salt in the other's wounds. This behaviour would only impair your relationship
  • Agree that each will be patient in the grievance procedure, giving each other time to evaluate the respective positions
  • Agree that it is not a demonstration of weakness for a supervisor to ask the union steward for assistance, and it is not underhanded for the union steward to advise their supervisor of potential problems to allow the supervisor to nip them in the bud
  • Both parties are bound by the collective agreement, each having rights and obligations
  • If you were wrong or have made an error in applying the collective agreement, don't be afraid to admit it. This helps with your credibility

Be sure to

  • Maintain objectivity at all times
  • Try to understand the employee's point of view
  • Not misrepresent facts
  • Make an attempt, only after you have a decision, to inform the union steward of important decisions
  • Not make commitments that you cannot keep
  • Have your discussion in private

When denying a grievance, try to clearly and fully explain your reasons. Include specific collective agreement references when available.


Every collective agreement includes a dispute-resolution process when disputes are outstanding. These are usually referenced as the grievance process. Supervisors should review the pertinent article(s) in the appropriate collective agreements, as they 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 as described in the collective agreement.

Step one is an informal stage where the aggrieved employee and the local supervisor meet about the issue. They respectfully discuss and listen to each other, asking clarifying questions. An objective and 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 step.

The supervisor is encouraged to take time and 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 impact the entire ministry. Make a written record by preparing a statement of all that occurred. If the grievance proceeds, it is useful to have this documentation.

If the complaint is not resolved at step one, the employee may wish to proceed to step two of the grievance process. 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.

Step two

Grievance forms should be presented to the designated ministry representative (as identified in the ministry delegation matrix), but it 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 step one and step two designate on a particular file.

Note that once a grievance is submitted formally, any 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 other operational discussions with the employee, nor does it negate the disputed action.

The process for managing BCGEU grievances indicates that within 21 days of receipt, the ministry's designate and the union representative 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 nature of the complaint, the parties may be able to have a more frank discussion of the facts 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 prior to sending the step two reply

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

If the grievance is not resolved, arbitration is scheduled. Involved ministry supervisors are critical in preparation for arbitration and may serve as witnesses at the arbitration hearing.

Types of arbitration

Expedited arbitration

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

Formal arbitration

A procedure that 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.