The collective bargaining process

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How it works

Collective bargaining is the process whereby the Treasury Board and a union negotiate a collective agreement for a bargaining unit. This usually occurs when a collective agreement is expiring and needs to be renewed.

A collective agreement is a contract between the employer and the union that represents a bargaining unit. Collective agreements are only in effect for a defined period of time. They set the terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and leave, for employees in that bargaining unit.

A bargaining unit includes one or more occupational groups (e.g. AS, PM, IT) that share a collective agreement and are represented by the same union. A few occupational groups (e.g. PE, OM, EX) are not represented by a union.

Learn which union represents your occupational group.

Every collective agreement has an expiry date. The terms and conditions of employment in an expired collective agreement continue to apply until a new collective agreement is in place.

Initiating negotiations

A few months before the expiry of a collective agreement, the union advises the employer, or vice versa, that they want to bargain a renewed collective agreement. This is known as a notice to bargain. The notice to bargain kicks off the collective bargaining process.

The bargaining table

Following the notice to bargain, the employer and the union begin bargaining. In the first stage of bargaining, the parties meet to exchange proposals. The proposals presented by the employer and the union outline the items each party wishes to amend, delete from, or add to the collective agreement.

In subsequent meetings, the parties continue their discussion with the goal of reaching a tentative agreement on a renewed collective agreement. These meetings, which are normally held a few days a month, can go on for many months or a few years.

At any time during the collective bargaining process, the parties can request mediation services from the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board (FPSLREB). Mediation is a voluntary and confidential process that promotes open and respectful communication with the assistance of a neutral and impartial mediator. Mediation allows the parties in a dispute to examine their interests and concerns, explore a variety of creative options, and develop mutually satisfactory solutions to problems.

Bargaining is a process of give and take. During negotiations, some bargaining demands may be withdrawn in favor of others. Proposals are often modified as discussions continue to reach agreement.

Resolving disputes

At the beginning of the collective bargaining process, the union identifies what action will be taken if the parties cannot reach an agreement at the bargaining table. The dispute resolution mechanism can be either arbitration or conciliation:


If the parties cannot reach a tentative agreement at the bargaining table, either one may ask to establish an arbitration board through the FPSLREB.

The FPSLREB develops a binding report that considers the economic, fiscal, and other factors of both parties’ positions on outstanding issues. This report forms the terms and conditions for the new collective agreement. 

There is no right to strike when the union chooses arbitration.


If the parties cannot reach a tentative agreement at the bargaining table, either the employer or the union can declare an impasse. At this point, either the employer or the union can apply to the FPSLREB for conciliation.

The process of conciliation involves appointing a Public Interest Commission (PIC). A PIC is mandated by the FPSLREB to assist the parties in coming to an agreement. A PIC typically consists of three people:

  • a Chair appointed by the FPSLREB
  • a nominee appointed by the employer
  • a nominee appointed by the union

Once the PIC is created, hearing dates are set where both parties provide their information and arguments about the matters in dispute. This process can take several months.

Following the hearings, the PIC makes recommendations to the employer and the union that could help them reach a settlement. The recommendations are not binding and neither side is required to accept them. The union and employer may resume bargaining and use the PIC’s recommendations as the basis for reaching a potential agreement.

Should the parties continue to fail to reach a collective agreement, the bargaining unit acquires the legal right to strike, so long as certain conditions are met.

Strike action

Should the parties be unable to reach an agreement following the PIC process, the union may choose to consider legal strike action. Unions are in a legal strike position when the following conditions are met:

  • at least seven days have passed since the PIC issued its recommendations
  • at least 30 days have passed since the employer and the union have agreed on which positions are designated as providing an essential service
  • a majority of bargaining unit members have voted in favor of a strike within the last 60 days

Essential services

During the bargaining process, the employer and the union work to determine which services will be considered essential and must continue in the event of a strike.

Reaching agreement

The best outcome is when the employer and the union agree on a renewed collective agreement at the bargaining table.

A collective agreement agreed to at the bargaining table is tentative until:

  • a majority of members of the bargaining unit have voted to ratify (accept) it
  • the Treasury Board, as the public service employer, has approved the proposed agreement

Following these approvals, the employer and the union sign the collective agreement and its terms and conditions come into effect.

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