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August 2003     Vol. 4, no. 8

Unionization and the grievance system

Ernest B. Akyeampong

Workers spend a significant proportion of their lives in the workplace. During this time, disagreements with supervisors are bound to arise. As in other areas of life, many of these conflicts can be resolved at the personal level. However, since the employer-employee relationship is not one of equal power, employees may benefit from access to dispute settlement procedures. These put employees on a more equal footing with their employer, allowing them to feel more at ease and in control. The workplace procedures that have been established to protect employees against exploitation, abuse or unfair treatment by employers are generally referred to as the grievance system, or dispute- or complaint-resolution system (see The grievance system).

Not much is known about how pervasive the system is in Canada. Similarly, usage rates, resolution methods, and satisfactory resolution rates are hard to come by. Fortunately, the Workplace and Employee Survey (WES) (see Data source) not only permits such analyses, but also provides useful insights into whether unionized workers have the advantage in accessing and using a grievance system. The article also briefly examines worker satisfaction ratings with the job overall and with pay and benefits in particular, and if having a grievance system at the workplace affects these ratings.

Access much higher for the unionized

In 1999, roughly one half (49% or 5.3 million) of the 10.8 million employees covered by WES reported that they had access to a grievance system at their workplace (Table 1). Approximately 3 million (28%) of these employees stated that they belonged to a union or were covered by a collective agreement. note 2  As expected, the accessibility rate was much higher among unionized workers; overall, it stood at 85%, almost two and a half times the rate for non-unionized workers (35%) (Chart A). note 3  The union advantage persisted for both sexes; across age, occupation and industry groupings; and across regions.

Overall, the highest accessibility rates were recorded for workers in professional occupations (66%) and for those in heavily unionized industries such as primary product manufacturing (67%), communication and other utilities (74%), and education and health services (71%). In contrast, the lowest rates were found among less unionized groups such as youth (less than 25 years, 32%), marketing and salespersons (34%), and workers in construction and in real estate, rental and leasing (32% each).

Only Alberta, the least unionized province, had an accessibility rate (45%) lower than the overall national average; the rate for each of the other five regions was identical to the national average.

Access more common in larger firms

About 48% of the 718,000 establishments covered by WES stated that they had a grievance system. The likelihood of having a system at the workplace increased with establishment size and was also positively correlated with the presence of a union (Akyeampong 2000). note 4  For example, 44% of small firms (less than 20 employees) reported having a grievance system, compared with 95% of large firms (over 500); the latter are also more frequently unionized (Chart B). Furthermore, the larger the firm size, the greater the likelihood of a formal grievance system—the term 'formal' usually entailing a written grievance with detailed step-by-step resolution procedures. In contrast, the smaller the firm size, the greater the likelihood of an informal system, usually entailing a verbal or written grievance and often settled by a supervisor or manager.

Overall usage rate similar for unionized and non-unionized workers

Approximately 11% (570,000) of the over five million employees with access to a grievance system filed a grievance in 1999 (Table 2). Irrespective of union membership, the highest usage rates were recorded for youth (18%), production workers with no trade or certification (20%), employees in labour-intensive tertiary manufacturing (16%), and workers in Alberta (14%). The lowest rates were for managers and professionals (7% each), and finance and insurance (6%).

Clearly, access does not necessarily go hand in hand with use of the system. For example, despite unionized workers' greater access to and perceived preoccupation with the grievance system, their usage rate as a group (11.2%) was fairly similar to that of non-unionized workers (10.5%). Although the reason for the similar rates is not immediately clear, easier access and therefore greater potential use of the system by unionized workers may contribute to improved human-relations practices on the part of employers, resulting in fewer grievances being filed.

Furthermore, the union versus non-union grievance usage pattern does not appear clear-cut. For some groups such as youth, production workers with no trade or certification, and workers in Alberta, the usage rate for non-unionized workers was much higher. For other groups such as workers in forestry, mining, and oil and gas extraction, and in British Columbia, the reverse was true. Interestingly, youth and workers in Alberta had the lowest accessibility rates and yet recorded the highest usage rates.

Formal versus informal settlements

In general, almost half of all grievances do not go beyond the supervisor or manager level. Of the 570,000 filed in 1999, 46% were informally addressed at this level (Table 3). About 16% were addressed through a management committee, 22% through a labour-management committee, and 9% by an outside arbitrator. Other mechanisms were used in 20% of cases.

The settlement method used depends partly on the grievance procedures in place and partly on the substance of the grievance. Stark differences were apparent in the address mechanisms used by unionized and non-unionized workers. The more informal resolution routes (mainly the manager/supervisor or a management committee) were used most frequently by non-unionized workers; indeed, for many non-unionized workplaces, recourse was limited to these two levels. On the other hand, the more formal settlement routes (labour-management committee or arbitration) were the norm for unionized employees. Thus, 8 in 10 non-unionized workers in 1999 saw their grievance informally addressed by a supervisor/manager or a management committee, compared with 5 in 10 unionized workers. In contrast, just over 5 in 10 unionized workers had their grievance addressed through a labour-management committee or outside arbitrator, compared with only 1 in 10 non-unionized employees, most of them in larger establishments.

Non-unionized employees more likely to note improved post-grievance situations

Approximately 61% of the employees who filed a grievance in 1999 perceived some improvement in their post-grievance situation (Table 4). Overall, men were more likely than women to indicate an improvement (70% versus 53%). Among the major occupations, managers ranked first in this regard (84%), possibly because managers invariably play a major role in the resolution process. Marketing and sales recorded the least (39%). A much higher-than-average percentage of workers in construction (84%) indicated an improvement, as did workers in the Atlantic region (71%).

Despite the support received from unions during grievances (through shop stewards, for example), fewer unionized workers than non-unionized reported an improvement in their post-grievance situation (54% versus 68%). Possible explanations for this anomaly are not readily available. They may partly derive from differences in the kind of issues being grieved by the two groups—information not available from WES. In other words, the issues being grieved by non-unionized workers may be easier to resolve. It is not possible to ascertain the influence of resolution mechanisms used because not all mechanisms were available to each filer, and also because some filers used more than one mechanism.

Workers with grievance privileges more satisfied with job, pay and benefits

Overall job satisfaction depends on a variety of factors, including pay and benefits, nature of the job, physical working conditions, relations with the boss and co-workers, job stability, promotional prospects, and work arrangements (for example, shift, contract, seasonal, or on-call work). Similarly, satisfaction with pay depends in part on job demands and skill or educational qualification match. Finally, satisfaction with job benefits depends on several factors, including their number and type (Akyeampong 2002; Fang and Verma 2002; Marshall 2003).

While job satisfaction has many aspects, one would expect—all else equal—higher satisfaction among workers with grievance privileges. WES does indeed show slightly higher overall job satisfaction for workers with grievance privileges. In 1999, about 91% of these workers stated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their job overall, compared with 88% of those without such privileges (Table 5). Ratings were identical for the unionized and non-unionized.

Satisfaction with pay and benefits was generally lower than for the overall job. Here also, a slightly higher percentage of workers with access to a grievance system (77%) than those without (72%) stated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their pay and benefits. Again, unionized and non-unionized employees scarcely differed.

Employers with a grievance system at their workplace were also asked to rate their labour-management relations. note 5  About 92% rated these as good, another 8% as fair, and only a handful as poor. The presence of a union appeared to have a slightly negative effect. In workplaces with a grievance system but no union, 92% of employers perceived their labour-management relations to be good compared with just under 88% of employers in workplaces with a union.


In 1999, approximately half the 10.8 million employees covered by the Workplace and Employee Survey reported having a grievance system at their workplace. About 85% of unionized workers had access to a grievance system compared with 35% of non-unionized workers. The union advantage persisted across age, sex, occupation, industry and geographical dimensions. The likelihood of having a system increased with establishment size.

About 11% of those with access filed a grievance in 1999. However, access to a grievance system alone does not necessarily translate into use. The usage rate for unionized workers, who have more access, was almost identical to the rate for non-unionized employees. Indeed, some workers with the least access to the system were the most likely to use it, and vice versa.

While settlements through managers/supervisors and management committees appeared to be the norm for non-unionized workers, unionized workers were more likely to use a formal settlement mechanism such as a labour-management committee or an outside arbitrator.

About 6 in 10 persons filing a grievance in 1999 perceived an improvement in their post-grievance situation. The ratio was higher for non-unionized employees—7 in 10, compared with 5 in 10 unionized workers. Factors accounting for the disappearance of a union advantage in this situation, despite union workers' greater access to the system, are not immediately clear from available WES data, but differences in issues being grieved may have played a role.

Worker satisfaction with the overall job was generally higher than for pay and benefits. The presence of a grievance system at the workplace appears to have had a slight positive effect on satisfaction ratings. About 91% of all workers with grievance privileges indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the overall job, and 77% said the same with respect to pay and benefits. For those without access to a grievance system, the corresponding percentages were slightly lower, at 88% and 72%. The ratings for unionized and non-unionized workers were similar, with or without a grievance system at the workplace.


Data source

The Workplace and Employee Survey (WES) is a joint program of Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada. The goal of the WES is to examine the way employers and their employees respond to the changing competitive and technological environment. Survey results provide insight into the relationship between a firm's employment practices and its performance, as well as in-depth information on the effects of technology, training and human resources practices. The survey is unique in that employers and employees are linked at the microdata level—employees are selected from the sampled workplaces. Thus, information from both employers and employees is available in a single framework. The longitudinal aspect of WES allows researchers to study both employer and employee outcomes over time.

The 1999 sample consisted of 6,400 establishments and 24,000 employees. Public administration, agriculture, fishing and trapping, and private households are excluded from WES.


The grievance system

A grievance can be defined as a complaint, often in writing, requesting redress by management of a perceived act of injustice. The complaint can be filed directly by the aggrieved worker(s) or by a union on their behalf. The injustice could be the result of a violation of the term(s) of a collective agreement, a federal or provincial law, or simply an employee's rights as spelled out in corporate policies or practices. The most common grievances involve pay (including overtime and acting pay); special leave; notices of suspension, dismissal or reprimand; discrimination and harassment; and performance appraisals.

Usually, grievance procedures clearly spell out the steps to be followed for resolution. Typically, the first is a verbal or written complaint to the immediate supervisor. Failing resolution at this level, the complaint proceeds to a management committee. Most cases involving non-unionized workers do not go beyond this level; however, some cases, especially those involving unionized workers, can be taken further—a labour-management committee and even outside arbitration. Deadlines are usually specified for each level. The final authority for settlement is laid out in most corporate policies or collective agreements. note 1 


  1. Approximately 84% of employees with a workplace grievance system stated that the final authority for settlement rested with management. Another 5% cited a labour-management committee, and the remaining 11% an outside arbitrator.
  2. The WES union coverage rate is slightly lower than the rate in the overall economy. According to the Labour Force Survey, inclusion of employees in agriculture and the heavily unionized public administration industry raised the overall national coverage rate in 1999 to 32% (Akyeampong 2000).
  3. The high accessibility rate for unionized workers is not surprising since most collective agreements contain grievance provisions.
  4. The Labour Force Survey shows that in 1999, the union rate rose by firm size, increasing from 14% for firms with less than 20 employees to 58% for firms with more than 500 employees (Akyeampong 2000).
  5. Since this question was not administered to those without a grievance system, it is impossible to ascertain the likely effect, or its direction, of having a system in place.


  • Akyeampong, Ernest B. 2000. "Non-unionized but covered by collective agreement." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XPE) 12, no. 3 (Autumn): 33-59.
  • ---. 2002. "Unionization and fringe benefits." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XIE) 3, no. 8. August 2002 online edition.
  • Fang, Tony and Anil Verma. 2002. "Union wage premium." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XIE) 3, no. 9. September 2002 online edition.
  • Marshall, Katherine. 2003. "Benefits of the job." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XIE) 4, no. 5. May 2003 online edition.


Ernest B. Akyeampong is with the Labour and Household Surveys Analysis Division. He can be reached at (613) 951-4624 or

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