What does effective representation look like? Or better yet, what does it feel like?
By Isobel Farrell, Regional Director
According to Section 74 of the Ontario Labour Relations Act, a trade union has a duty of fair representation to its members. The Act defines fair representation as “to not act in a manner that is arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith in the representation of any of the employees in the unit.”
As a union representative, it is my responsibility along with my respective stewards’ committees to represent the membership in a way that upholds these rules. But does this very technical definition cut it in the real world? Is it enough?
When I think about what effective representation looks like, there is much that comes to mind beyond what Section 74 spells out. The law is so important because it holds unions accountable to their members—but it spells out a minimum, not a high standard. To me, effective and fair representation includes excellent communication, transparency, trust, and the pursuit of justice.
Communication is such an important part of representation. It includes maintaining confidentiality, even when that makes life difficult. It means answering phone calls and emails, speaking with members personally, visiting job sites regularly (when Covid permits), and building relationships with the people we represent. I am at my best as a representative when I am communicating and being communicated with well.
Transparency between members and representatives is key. This means being honest with my members and telling them the truth even when it isn’t what they want to hear. While sometimes it feels like the easy path would be to simply agree with every complaint that comes in, regardless of the merits, I know that isn’t proper representation. That reads more like a sorority or popularity club.
The hard work sometimes involves explaining to a member that although their feelings are legitimate, their case will not stand up in court. Equally challenging is when you need to pursue a legitimate grievance when others in the bargaining unit don’t necessarily know all the facts and would prefer the union to simply see the “pain in the butt” member gone. It is important to me, and to all representatives at CLAC, to be honest with members about their circumstances and to not withhold information from them.
Another important part of effective representation is trust between the members, the stewards, and the union representative. This comes when a relationship is built over time. Sometimes we as a union committee fall short of the expectations of the membership. As human beings that shouldn’t be too surprising. However, when that happens, it is important that we share that disappointment and provide the committee the opportunity to respond.
It’s my hope that the trust that is developed between us extends to understanding when one of us messes up. Effective representation is a two-way street: I have to trust my members, and they have to trust me. When this happens, it leads to constructive and positive relationships and better representation.
Effective representation means that I am pursuing justice for my members. This means recognizing the dignity of each worker. It is this recognition that keeps me striving to be the best advocate that I can be. I am not a good representative because the law tells me to be, I am a good representative because I believe in the inherent value of each individual I represent, and I believe that they are entitled to justice.
Recognizing the importance of transparency, effective communication, trust, and justice, it is so important to elect stewards that will live out these characteristics. I have the privilege of working with some amazing stewards—people who consistently offer their free time to ensure that a member feels listened to, or who is provided support during a particularly challenging time. Stewards play such an important role and are a key part of effective representation.
At CLAC, we want to go beyond the baseline of fair representation set out by each province and offer true effective representation to each of our members. When members are being fairly and effectively represented, not only are the representatives not acting in a manner that is arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith—they are representing them, in partnership with excellent stewards, with integrity, honesty, and in pursuit of justice for each member.