unionized worker

How A Human Rights Lawyer Can Help Unionized Employees

A human rights lawyer can defend employers against unions and unionized employees when human rights have been affected. In The Ontario Human Rights Act, human rights violations include harassment and discrimination against race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or other personal characteristics. An employer or employee should seek legal counsel if experiencing violations against human rights in the workplace, even when they are unionized.

In Ontario, non-unionized workers experiencing a human rights violation will seek legal representation and proceed to negotiations. When negotiations fail, they can either file a civil lawsuit or apply to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Rules get more complicated when a company is unionized. The only time a lawyer can assist employees in matters of a union they are defending them against human rights violations.

When Can A Human Rights Lawyer Help Unionized Employees?

When an employee is in a union, a collective agreement governs the employee’s relationship with the employer. These agreements must include a grievance process in Ontario, allowing employees to bring workplace issues to arbitration.

Because unionized employment has a built-in conflict resolution system, unions have exclusive jurisdiction to deal with claims involving issues covered in the collective agreement. If an employee tries to start a lawsuit and the court decides the conflict is a matter for the union, the claim will be on hold until the final decision is in arbitration.

An important exception is human rights. A unionized employee can elect to go through a human rights lawyer if they don’t trust the union’s process, but a lawyer can only help in a human rights scenario.

For example, if a unionized employee is terminated and suspects discrimination, contacting a human rights lawyer is important so they can examine issues to see if there is discrimination at play. If there is, they may have the ability to file an application with the Human Right Tribunal to seek damages for the human rights violations they experienced.

When To File For A Human Rights Application And Grievance

Human rights issues may still be a matter to solve through the union. Suppose an employee experiences dismissal from employment for discriminatory reasons and the union’s collective agreement addresses wrongful dismissal; in that case, it is necessary to file a grievance.

But there are situations where a human rights lawyer will recommend an employee files an application to the Human Rights Tribunal as well. If an employee experienced bullying for discriminatory reasons, but they haven’t been dismissed, it’s possible the collective agreement does not have terms addressing the situation. In this case, you may be able to file a human rights application to ask for damages to compensate for injury to dignity, feelings, and self-respect.

In a scenario in Quebec, the Supreme Court of Canada found other reasons a human rights matter in a unionized workplace should be dealt with by the province’s Human Rights Tribunal. In this case, the workers filed a Human Rights Application arguing that the collective agreement itself violated their human rights. In essence, the Supreme Court found that the Tribunal was a better “fit” for this matter because workers might not be able to expect that their union will argue that its collective agreement violates the law. Those workers may not have other options to defend their rights if they cannot go to the Human Rights Tribunal.

Arbitration Versus Human Rights Application

In any situation where a unionized employee can choose to file a grievance or a human rights application, a human rights lawyer can review your case and advise whether to file for both. At this stage, it is important to consider that the Tribunal and an arbitrator cannot offer the same remedies. 

In arbitration, remedies are set in a collective agreement. This could mean the arbitrator can order a company to reinstate an employee’s position if they were dismissed for discriminatory reasons. The employee may be compensated for some or all of the income that wasn’t received during the dismissal. An arbitrator also has the power to decide that a term in the collective agreement violates the Human Rights Act and cannot be applied.

Arbitration cannot provide compensation for your dignity, feelings, and self-respect. Only the Human Rights Tribunal can award these damages. If you want compensation for being bullied or dismissed for discriminatory reasons, filing a Human Rights Application may be a suitable path where having a lawyer will help.


The rights of unionized workers are complex, and this area of law is constantly evolving. A worker’s union exists to protect employees. When an employee doesn’t trust the union and suspects human rights have been violated, seeking counsel from a human rights lawyer is important to help determine the best course of action. However, if a unionized employee does not suspect their human rights have been violated, a human rights and employment lawyer will be unable to assist due to the collective agreement governing the employee’s relationship with the employer. In cases outside of human rights, an employee will need to speak with their union representative to begin their conflict resolution process.

Contact Us

Whether you are an employer or an employee looking for a human rights lawyer to assist with workplace issues or employment relationships, our skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced employment lawyers at Achkar Law can help. Contact us by phone toll-free at +1 (800) 771-7882 or email us at [email protected], and we would be happy to assist.

If you are a small or medium-sized company looking for full-service support with a same-day response, visit our CLO Program page for our strategic solutions.

Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to serve as or should be construed as legal advice and is only to provide general information. It is in no way particular to your case and should not be relied on in any way. No portion or use of this blog will establish a lawyer-client relationship with the author or any related party. Should you require legal advice for your particular situation, fill out the contact form, call (800) 771-7882 or email [email protected]