New to Unions Q&A

Union Q&As

Definitions and Union Jargon

What is Collective Bargaining?

When a group of employees (i.e., a union) negotiate with their employer over pay, benefits and working conditions. The principle stems from the idea that as a group, employees have more strength or bargaining power if they collaborate than they do if they try to negotiate with their employer individually. Because of its basis in collaboration, collective bargaining is inherently a democratic process since a majority of employees select the subjects they bargain over and vote on whether they agree to a contract.

Collective Bargaining is actually a Human Right. As a Human Rights Watch press statement urging the United States to honor public employee bargaining rights, issued on February 26, 2011, explains:

The reason why collective bargaining is recognized as an international human right is that the compromises resulting from a process in which workers have an autonomous voice reflect principles of dignity, equality, and democracy consistent with human rights principles.

What is a union?

Employees coming together using a democratic process to engage in collective bargaining in order to negotiate with their employer over their wages, benefits and working conditions.

It is not an outside third party, especially within IFPTE -- the union is made up of the employees, who democratically elect representatives to oversee their union’s affairs and negotiations with their employer.

What is the difference between associations and unions?

Associations are organizations of people with a common interest or purpose. People form associations for a number of reasons such as retirement issues, professional certification, and even employee welfare or work issues. A union is a type of association, though with one major difference: members of a union have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining with an employer, and the employer is legally obligated to bargain with the union.

To illustrate, assume you and your colleagues want to form an employee association to advocate for professional development and improved benefits with your employer. You are free to create such an association; however, your employer is not legally required to talk to or negotiate with your organization. On the other hand, if you and your colleagues formed a union to address those same issues, your employer would legally be required to negotiate in good faith. Furthermore, forming a union is a democratic process that requires approval by a majority of your colleagues, while anyone, even an employer, can set up an association.

What can be confusing is that some unions and their local affiliates call themselves an association even though their legal status is more specifically that of a union. For example, IFPTE Judicial Council 1 is called the "Association of Administrative Law Judges" (AALJ). In their case, the AALJ started out as an employee professional association before they activated their legal right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer in order to become a union. Other local unions often use the word “association” in their title as a simple a matter of preference.

What is a Local?

An affiliate of the larger union organization that represents a particular bargaining unit of employees in their dealings with their employer. IFPTE Locals have autonomy over their own affairs, such as dues, officer elections, and bargaining, and also govern the larger IFPTE organization through their ability to elect the IFPTE Executive Council and to vote on major changes to our governing documents.

Some of our Locals are large and have multiple bargaining units with different employers, while others only have one bargaining unit under one employer. In the Local Directory under About IFPTE, you will find a list of IFPTE Local Unions along with a summary of each one.

What is a bargaining unit?

A group of employees with a community of interest (similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.) that have union representation for the purpose of collective bargaining.

What is the benefit of a union?

Democracy in the workplace. A voice in the workplace. Unless you have a collective bargaining relationship, your employer dictates your wages, benefits and working conditions, and your employer can change them unilaterally without notice. By joining with your colleagues and forming a union, you gain legal status to make a difference within your work environment and to bargain a contract that governs your working conditions.

What is a union contract/collective bargaining agreement?

Also called a contract or a union contract, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is an legally binding contract between the employees (union) and the employer, arrived at through negotiations between the parties, which lays out the rights and duties of each party. This is similar to an employment contract a CEO has with a company, but it applies to all employees within the bargaining unit. This is the main reason employees form unions -- so that their wages, benefits, and working conditions cannot be changed unilaterally by management.

What goes into the union contract?

Depending on the employees’ interests and negotiations with their employer, a contract can include such provisions as improved benefits and wages, whistleblower protections, employee flexibilities, training and promotion opportunities, telework, fair performance rating system, and improved safety and environmental standards.

Who negotiates the union contract?

The employer and the union choose their own negotiating teams who have the authority to negotiate the contract, subject to final approval.

The employer's team is usually comprised of lawyers, local management, and upper management officials.

The union team usually consists of employees elected by their fellow employees to a negotiation team, but they can also include expert or experienced negotiators and/or lawyers that are decided upon and paid for by the union. Generally, once a contract has been negotiated, the union membership votes on whether to approve the contract.

Can a union develop a partnership with an employer?

Yes, though the existence of such a working partnership largely depends on the wishes of the employer to develop such a relationship with its employees. Most employees, including those who have a union, prefer to partner with their employer to work out their issues collaboratively. Unfortunately, the main reason employees end up forming a union is that some employers do not see value in such partnerships or in listening to the concerns and issues of their employees.

The good news is that by forming a union, you can hold your employer accountable, ensuring that you and your colleagues have a voice in fighting unilateral changes to your pay, benefits, employer policies, and other working conditions.

For example, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), IFPTE Local 2001, has a model union/management collaboration that has been negotiated in their Boeing contracts. The Ed Wells Partnership is a joint initiative between The Boeing Company and SPEEA-represented employees that provides a variety of training opportunities for members with staff from Boeing and SPEEA working together full time towards one goal. The partnership offers a wide selection of class titles in technical and professional skill areas. In 2013, the partnership expects to deliver more than 500 events, totaling over 115,000 student hours. In SPEEA's contract with Boeing, they negotiated that Boeing will contribute a minimum of $24.8 million towards the partnership to benefit SPEEA members.

What is a strike?

A work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees within the unit to work. It is a negotiating tool of last resort and used by employees in the private sector and in some of the public sectors, where allowed. Strikes are illegal in most of the public sector and in the federal sector. Over 98% of union contract negotiations are settled without a strike in the private sector, since the employer often does not want a strike any more than the employees do. In IFPTE, strikes can only be authorized by a majority of the bargaining unit through a vote of the employees involved.

Alternatives to strikes include mediation and arbitration. Mediation is a process in which two parties rely on a professional mediator to assist them in finding solutions to a dispute. In mediation, both parties still have to agree to the solution. Arbitration is when both parties agree to refer the dispute to a third party, the arbitrator, to make a decision. Both parties agree to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision (also called an “award”). Arbitration is also a tool widely used for enforcement of collective bargaining agreements in place of going to court for enforcement of a contract.

What are union dues? What are they used for?

Dues are contributed by union members to the organization and are generally the only source of funds for a union. These funds are used to support the unions' expenses such as legal advice during negotiations, ensure the employer follows the collective bargaining agreement, officer/steward training, assisting others in organizing a union, and arbitrations.

Each IFPTE Local sets its own dues rate and structure based on its size and needs, taking into account what is required by the IFPTE Constitution. Each IFPTE Local Union determines how its dues are used beyond representational activities. For example, a portion of dues can be used to establish an Emergency Relief Fund, in the event an employee is going through a crisis, or to set up a Scholarship Fund.

What about unions and politics?

Unions engage in politics in order to advocate on particular issues or positions that benefit their members, just as corporations and special interest groups engage in politics. Unions often take political positions on issues that will affect their membership or that will affect working people as a whole. Unlike corporations or many special interest groups, unions are democracies, which means that union leaders are accountable to their members.

IFPTE advocates on particular issues of interest to our members, but does not engage in ideological politics, and does not make contributions to political candidates using union dues. To learn more about the issues we are currently engaged in please visit our Issues page. IFPTE Locals determine for themselves whether they wish to engage in politics or to remain neutral.

Legal Information

U.S. laws & processes United State Icon

What’s the legal process to form a union?

Private Sector

In order to form a union at your place of employment, you and your colleagues will need to democratically decide by secret ballot. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the National Mediation Board (NMB) are the two federal agencies responsible for conducting a union vote and certifying the results within the private sector. To see what sectors these agencies cover, see the following questions and answers below.

To request a union vote, the NLRB requires 30% or more of the employees in a potential bargaining unit to demonstrate their interest in forming a union by signing union authorization cards (i.e., petition), while the NMB requires 50% or more signatures from the employees. IFPTE recommends that at least 60% of your colleagues sign such cards before filing with the NLRB or NMB to ensure there is a majority of interest among your colleagues.

After you file with the NLRB or NMB, they will schedule and oversee a secret ballot election for you and your colleagues to vote to form a union. A majority of those voting must cast ballots in favor of forming a union in order for the union to be recognized and certified.

In rare cases, an employer will agree to voluntarily recognize a union without an election if there are sufficient cards to show that the union enjoys majority support within the unit. See “Card Check,” below.

Federal Sector

For federal employees interested in forming a union, you and your colleagues will also need to democratically decide by secret ballot. The difference is the federal agency responsible for conducting a union vote and certifying the results, which is the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).

Similar to the NLRB, the FLRA requires that 30% or more of the employees in a potential bargaining unit to demonstrate their interest in forming a union by signing union authorization cards for them to conduct a union vote.. As with the private sector, IFPTE recommends that at least 60% of your colleagues sign such cards before filing with the FLRA to ensure there is a majority of interest among your colleagues.

Once you file with the FLRA, they will schedule and oversee a secret ballot election for you and your colleagues to vote to form a union or not. If a majority of those voting cast ballots in favor of forming a union, then you have your union.

Public Sector

Each State determines its own procedure for whether and how public employees may form a union. In states where public employees have collective bargaining rights, many state labor laws are modeled upon NLRB processes.

What is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)?

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the U.S. government agency responsible for overseeing labor-management relations in the private sector, with the exception of the railroad and airline industries.

What is the National Mediation Board (NMB)?

The National Mediation Board (NMB) is a U.S. government agency responsible for overseeing labor-management relations in the railroad and airline private sector industries.

What is the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA)?

The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) is a U.S. government agency responsible for overseeing labor-management relations in the Federal sector.

What is Card Check/Voluntary Recognition?

In the private sector, this is a process by which the employees approach their employer to see if it will voluntarily recognize their union without having to go through the elections process at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or National Mediation Board (NMB). If the employer agrees to this process, both the employees and employer agree to a third party (e.g., arbitrator) to review the union authorization cards to determine if there is majority support. If it is determined that over 50% of the employees in the bargaining unit have signed union authorization cards, then the employer will recognize the union and certification can be filed with the NLRB or NMB.

Under current law within the United States, the employer decides whether to accept or reject this method, not the employees. Unlike in other modern industrial nations, in the United States very few private employers accept this method.

Canadian laws & processes Canada Icon

Legal Process for Forming a Union:

In Canada, each of the ten provinces has different rules regarding union certification. In addition, workers employed in federally regulated industries follow the Canada Labour Code which sets out distinct labour relations rules regardless of the province in which the business operates.

Two systems exist in Canada for obtaining union certification: Card Check Certification and the Mandatory Secret Ballot Vote Certification. Under both systems, the union must provide evidence through signed membership cards to prove that there is sufficient support for unionization in the workplace.

Card Check Certification applies to the following jurisdictions:

  • Federally regulated industries (air, telecom, transport, etc.)
  • Manitoba
  • Quebec
  • New Brunswick
  • Prince Edward Island

Under Card Check Certification, if a majority of the employees within the bargaining unit sign membership cards then the union will legally be recognized. The threshold to reach a majority varies among the jurisdictions. Manitoba requires 65% signed cards, while New Brunswick calls for 60%. In the case of Quebec, Prince Edward Island and the federal sector, a simple majority of 50%+1 is sufficient for automatic certification. In addition, in the event that these card percentages are not met, there is a lower threshold that can be achieved to trigger a secret ballot vote instead.

Mandatory Secret Ballot Vote Certification jurisdictions:

  • British Columbia
  • Alberta
  • Saskatchewan
  • Ontario
  • Nova Scotia
  • Newfoundland

Under this system, employees supporting union representation must sign membership cards to trigger a Labour Board supervised secret ballot vote. Each province sets its own minimum percentage in order for the vote to take place. The results of the vote must demonstrate that 50% +1 has voted in favour of union representation.

Application Thresholds for Certifications in Canada:

Federal jurisdiction  |  Card Check  |  50% +1, Vote requires 35% cards
British Columbia  |  Secret Ballot  |  45% cards required to trigger vote
Alberta  |  Secret Ballot Vote  |  40% cards required to trigger vote
Saskatchewan  |  Secret Ballot  |  45% cards required to trigger vote
Manitoba   |  Card Check  |   65%, Vote requires 40% cards
Ontario  |  Secret Ballot  |  40% cards required to trigger vote
Quebec  |  Card Check  |   50% +1, Vote requires 35% cards
New Brunswick  |  Card Check  |  60% +1, Vote requires 40% cards
Nova Scotia  |  Secret Ballot  |  40% cards required to trigger vote
Prince Edward Island  |  Card Check  |   50% +1, vote % not specified
Newfoundland-and-Labrador  |  Secret Ballot  |  40% cards required to trigger vote

IFPTE at a Glance


IFPTE represents over 80,000 women and men in professional, technical, administrative and associated occupations in the United States and Canada.


Our members work for federal, public and private employers, and work in various occupations such as auditors, drafters/designers, engineers, judges, lawyers, researchers, scientists, and technicians to name a few.

Executive Board

The Executive Council is made up of Officers and Area Vice-Presidents. Area Vice-Presidents are elected by members within their specific area, and are responsible for governing IFPTE between conventions. A list of the Area Vice-Presidents can be found on our Officers page.

Executive Officers

The Executive Officers run the day to day operations of IFPTE and they are elected at the IFPTE Convention, which are held every three years.