Canada Employment and Immigration Union -
October 31, 2003

Tips for interpreting the collective agreement

A collective agreement is first and foremost an agreement between the parties (the employer and the union). Second, it is a set of rules which both parties have agreed to follow in the workplace.

Not surprisingly, there are disagreements about what these rules may mean and how they should be applied in a given situation. When members claim they were denied an entitlement under the contract, a steward or local officer may have a strong sense that they’re right, but how exactly should a grievance approach the problem? How do we interpret the rules, the collective agreement, to establish our member’s case?

What follows is a brief introduction to interpreting the contract, but it is no substitute for training courses that are available for stewards and interested members. In addition, help with contract interpretation is always available from your union staff representative.

The words themselves

First, there are the words themselves in the collective agreement. By and large, the words in a contract mean what they mean in everyday life. In some cases, words are defined in the agreement, and when they are, strict attention must be paid to this meaning. (See article 2 of the PA agreement). In addition, words can be defined for specific clauses and that definition will apply to that clause only (see article 25.27 of the PA agreement).

The context

Second, there is the context of the clause within the agreement. When one reads a particular clause, one has to understand it in relation to the other clauses linked to it. In other words, the overall context has to be considered.

The intent

Finally, one has to consider the intentions of the parties. What problem were they trying to resolve when they agreed to a particular rule? When the parties agreed to the normal work day being 7.5 hours between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm, why did they do that? Clearly, part of the reason was to ensure that the employer did not alter work arrangements so that members would have to work into the evening without some penalty to the employer (see 25.12(b)) and some reward to the workers.

Making our best case

Taking these principles and applying them to a particular contract issue is the process of interpreting a collective agreement clause. As trade unionists, we look for the interpretation which best serves the interest of our members at any given time. However, we must face the fact that “you can’t always get what you want” but we can ensure that we strive, through interpretation and argumentation, to get everything we deserve.

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