The Union Challenge | Unions Yeah!

The Union Challenge

The contest is closed, but you can still take the challenge

If you don’t think you’ve ever benefited from the work of unions, this is your chance to prove it. Answer the questions below and see how unions have impacted your life and the world you live in.

Enter your name and email address after you complete the Challenge and you could win a t-shirt.

For many, Labour Day signifies the end of summer, but it got its start thanks to unions.

In April of 1872, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized Canada's first significant workers’ demonstration to help release 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union who had been imprisoned for striking for a 9-hour work day. The parade that was held in support of the strikers carried over into the annual celebration we now know as Labour Day.

The trade union movement has been fighting for pensions and old age security since its inception. In 1963, the federal Liberals won the election with a minority government. Prime Minister Lester Pearson petitioned the New Democratic Party (created in 1961 through the efforts of the labour movement) to form a majority parliament. The NDP agreed to join forces with the Liberals on the condition that the Liberals implement both universal Medicare and a universal earnings-related pension that would cover all workers and provide a decent retirement pension


The NDP was founded in Ottawa in 1961 at a convention uniting the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and affiliated unions of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and also New Party clubs. Over the last 50 years, New Democrats have taken up the struggles of the labour movement to ensure the introduction of universal medical care, public pensions, and the expansion of Canada’s social safety net.

Most current health and safety legislation has its origins in the union movement’s response to the March 17, 1960, slow, painful, and needless deaths of 5 Italian immigrant workers due to unsafe work conditions and a lack of protective equipment. Unions led the fight to get the Ontario government to take workplace health and safety seriously, leading to the passing of the Industrial Safety Act, which evolved into Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, both at the provincial and federal levels.

Before the 1970s, paid maternity leave was not a reality in Canada. In 1971, the federal government introduced paid maternity leave of 15 weeks at a paltry 66% of a mother's previous salary. Unions were the ones who pushed for higher levels of benefits and for longer periods of maternity and paternity leave, as well as leave for parents who had adopted. In 1981, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers won the right to 17 weeks of paid maternity leave, which was soon adopted across the country.

Unions have been at the forefront of pushing for legislation that safeguards young people with hour-based and activity-based limitations. As a result, the federal, provincial, and territorial governments have all passed laws that protect children from exploitation and abuse. Each province has a different set of laws but most contain descriptions of the kind of work young people can do, and at what ages. 

Being paid fairly and equally for your work is a fundamental principle of the labour movement. Unions have fought, and will continue to fight, to eliminate differences in pay based on gender, full-time, part-time and casual status, and age. As a trade unionists, we are committed to seeing everyone paid fairly and equitably.

Unions have fought, and continue to fight, to ensure all workers feel safe and are treated fairly on the job. We help to enforce Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and all similar legislation, to combat unfair and unequal treatment, as well as help to create anti-harassment policies, campaigns, and training. We give our full support to any and all workers who face these barriers in an effort to create work spaces that are free from harassment and discrimination.

Unions have long advocated for decent working conditions. As early as 1872, Canadian unions and workers were calling for an 8-hour work day — efforts that led Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to introduce the Trade Unions Act, both legalizing and protecting unions. The fight to establish a balance between an employee’s work life and private life remains a fundamental fight of the union movement.

The fight for regular hours of work and to make sure people are compensated for all the hours they work has been a focus of the labour movement since the very beginning. Far too many employers try to force people to work extra, often unpaid, hours. Whether it is through bargaining collective agreement language regarding hours of work and overtime, or lobbying governments for legislation to protect workers from overwork and wage theft, unions are fighting to make sure you get paid what you deserve. 

Canada was the last major Western country to adopt an unemployment insurance system, and its adoption is thanks to striking Vancouver workers. During the economic depression of 1929–1939, young unemployed men had to work in isolated government work camps for low wages. On April 4, 1935, workers in Vancouver abandoned the camps and launched a strike. After striking for 2 months, with no relief in sight, they took their case directly to Ottawa, in what became known as the “On to Ottawa Trek.” The trek was stopped by the RCMP on orders from Ottawa, but not before capturing the hearts and minds of Canadians everywhere and helping inspire legislation that abolished the work camps.

The National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) is the union for professional hockey players in the National Hockey League. Created in 1967, the union negotiates and enforces fair terms and conditions of employment for NHL players, so we can continue to watch the sport we all love.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) is the union representing performers in the film, radio, television and new media industries and is the largest organization of cultural workers in Canada. ACTRA has a history that goes back 70 years, growing, as it did, out of the Radio Artists of Toronto Society formed in 1941. Since then, ACTRA has played an important and vital role in the welfare of performers and in the development of the industry. By working to provide artists a living wage and benefits, ACTRA helps ensure that the Canadian performers can continue to deliver us the quality entertainment we have come to expect.

Paid sick leave is an issue that unions have fought for and won in almost every workplace where they represent the workers. And from those unionized workplaces, the practice of paid sick days has spread to most other full-time workplaces across Canada. Unions believe that no worker should have to choose between their health and their job, and they continue to fight for those rights today.

The union movement has fought for decades for compassionate care benefits for workers — lobbying that has led to the federal government instituting compassionate care benefits through the Employment Insurance (EI) program. While there is still work to be done, it is a start. And the labour movement continues to fight for expanded and improved coverage for these situations.

In both the private and public job markets, unions allow employees to have a voice to discuss or to bargain with an employer about conditions they feel need to be changed or improved. Issues unions frequently tackle include membership or public issues, such as safety conditions, pensions, the promotion process, benefits, and wage levels. All of the above can be done safely without fearing job loss.

Unions give workers a collective voice that rings much louder than one worker’s voice alone. This influence is best exemplified by collective bargaining, which puts some limits on employers’ otherwise absolute power over the workplace. But the benefits of collective agreements often spread further than to just union members. In many instances, the benefits won through the process of collective bargaining become extended to other, non-union, worksites. To recruit and retain staff, many employers must then offer the same benefits as unionized employees enjoy. Also, as we have seen, when enough workplaces implement the benefits contained in collective agreements, many governments are pushed into implementing legislation enshrining these benefits. This ensures that all workers benefit.

Medicare was born in Saskatchewan on July 1, 1962. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) held firm against anti-Medicare efforts thanks to the dedication of the Saskatchewan Farmers’ Union, trade unionists, and other activists. Though the CCF was defeated in the election of 1964, the new federal Liberal government was under pressure from the same groups to pass Medicare legislation and required the support of the newly formed New Democratic Party (the result of a merger between the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress) to draft the Medical Care Act. Medicare soon spread to other provinces thanks to pressure from labour and farm organizations, consumer groups, community associations and many churches recommending a public plan similar to the one introduced in Saskatchewan. The national Medical Care Act was passed in the House of Commons on December 8, 1966, by an overwhelming vote of 177 to 2.

As early as 1914, unions began advocating for a countrywide minimum wage.  Unions have a positive impact on the wages of non-union workers in industries and markets where unions have a strong presence. Historically, unions have raised the wages to a greater degree for low-skilled workers than for high-skilled ones. Consequently, unions lessen wage inequality. In particular, the wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers and the private return to education are reduced when unions are present.

The duty to accommodate requires an employer to accommodate a worker’s needs, such as changing the work environment or their duties to enable them to participate fully on the job. This right was won by unions through a court challenge and is now enshrined in human rights codes and jurisprudence across the country. It is now Canadian law that employers have a duty to accommodate workers to avoid discrimination based on any one of the 13 grounds identified in section 2 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA).

The right to refuse unsafe work is one of the 3 basic health and safety rights fought for and achieved by the labour movement. It is accompanied by the right to know about the hazards in the workplace, and the right to participate in workplace health and safety decisions. These are rights that unions have always fought for, and continue to fight for to this day.

Unions have set norms and established practices that become more generalized throughout the economy, thereby improving pay and working conditions for the entire workforce. Many "fringe" benefits, such as pensions and health insurance, were first provided in the union sector and then became more generalized. Union grievance procedures, which provide due process in the workplace, have been mimicked in many non-union workplaces. Union wage-setting, which has gained exposure through media coverage, has frequently established standards of what workers, including many non-union workers, generally expect from their employers.

According to research, had it not been for union efforts, the gender wage gap would have increased by 7 per cent in the 1980s. Also, the gender wage gap in the non-union sector makes a larger contribution to the gender wage gap than does the gap in the union sector. Overall, this suggests that unions in Canada have helped to reduce gender discrimination.