Rights and responsibilities of trade unions and occupational associations

Trade unions and occupational associations have a joint responsibility with the employer to create a workplace free from discrimination. Read about the protected area of membership in trade unions, employers' organizations or occupational associations.

Note: For ease of reference, the term "union" will be used to encompass trade unions or occupational associations in this section of the website. The term "member" will be used to describe a person who is a member of a union or occupational association.

Unions assist with human rights issues within the employment context by:

  • guiding a member who has a human rights issue through the employer's internal complaint resolution process;
  • informally assisting members to resolve a complaint;
  • advocating with the employer on behalf of the member;
  • helping a member file a grievance based on a human rights issue;
  • helping a member make a human rights complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission; and
  • making a policy grievance against the employer on behalf of the union's members.

The union must provide services to all members. A member who has a human rights issue has a right to full service from the union regardless of what the issue involves. For instance, the union has a responsibility to help a member who has a mental health issue access the employer's internal complaint resolution processes and grievance procedures in addition to making a human rights complaint. Also, a member who has made a human rights complaint against the union still has the right to the services normally offered by the union.

Exploring a potential human rights complaint
When a member brings a complaint to the union, the union can first assess whether there is a potential human rights issue involved. If so the member should be informed of the one-year limitation period for making complaints (see Limitation Period below) to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Many complaints can be resolved within the employment setting. The union and the member can make use of the regular complaint processes within the employment setting, starting at the lowest level of management. This might mean approaching an alleged harasser to try to find a resolution or having an informal chat with a member's supervisor. The union can assist with this process by:

  • outlining the employer's procedures for resolving a complaint;
  • referring the member to the employer's human rights policy;
  • referring the member to this website and the Alberta Human Rights Act;
  • going to any informal meetings with the member;
  • advocating with the employer on behalf of the member;
  • helping the member to clarify how the alleged discrimination has affected them; and
  • assisting the member in identifying potential resolutions.

Dealing with human rights issues between members
Even though a complaint may be initiated by one union member against another union member, the union still has a responsibility to ensure that both members are fairly represented. The union may assist a member who has been terminated based on allegations of sexually harassing behaviour, while at the same time assisting the person who has alleged harassment. In some cases the union has decided to represent a member in one aspect of their grievance, while refusing to grieve another aspect, such as the harassment issue. The union should consult its legal counsel on the duty to fairly represent members before making a decision on how to handle a case involving conflicting interests. The union, along with the employer, must remember its duty to create a discrimination-free work environment.

A union can assist a member who has potentially been discriminated against by:

  • keeping an open dialogue;
  • making sure the member is aware of meetings and decisions that affect their interests;
  • consulting with the member about their needs; and
  • referring the member immediately for a consultation with the Commission.

In discrimination cases, it is important for the union to consult with the member about their needs. There may be extenuating circumstances that the union is not aware of. For instance, a member may feel uncomfortable about being in the same work area as an alleged harasser. In response, the union could advocate separating the alleged harasser from the victim of harassment.

In another situation, a member might need certain accommodations for a disability. The union can help the member clearly express their accommodation needs. Other union members and co-workers may need education and information about the duty to accommodate to understand why a member is being accommodated. An open line of communication between affected individuals will help the union get the necessary information to resolve the issue.

Limitation Period
When a member has a potential human rights complaint, the union should inform them of the one-year limitation period for making a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. A human rights complaint must be made within one year after the alleged incident of discrimination, even when a grievance or other decision is pending.

A union may not retaliate against a member for making a complaint. Retaliation for making or attempting to make a human rights complaint, or for giving evidence about a complaint is prohibited under section 10 of the AHR Act. If a union were to deny a member full services just because they made, attempted to make, or supported a human rights complaint, this could be the basis for a further complaint to the Commission. This type of complaint is called a "retaliation complaint."

Revised: February 5, 2010


Our vision is a vibrant and inclusive Alberta where the rich diversity of people is celebrated and respected, and where everyone has the opportunity to fully participate in society, free from discrimination.