Some would say that in term of access to legal information, the labour sector has somehow been left behind. For sure, you can access labour codes and regulations on CanLII, as well as the latest judicial decisions addressing wrongful dismissal, but other sources are fundamental to the practice of labour lawyers. In a field where much depends on negotiation, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) – contracts between unions and employers – are as important as any other document. Unfortunately this source of law is not as easy to locate and use online as one could hope.
Typically, the electronic version of a CBA can be found somewhere on the website of the union that negotiated it. This is not always the case, however, since some unions hide it in a “Members Only” section. In addition, because CBAs are public documents, many provinces have set up online repositories agglomerating CBAs under their jurisdictions. See for instance the CORAIL website in Quebec, the Collective Agreements e-Library Portal in Ontario, or the Ministry of Labour website in Alberta. These repositories are great initiatives but were designed for the download of a known CBA, not to facilitate discovery and research throughout the complete database. In any case, CBAs are almost exclusively made available for download in PDF format, often from a signed copy without OCR, requiring a lot of reading and very difficult to build upon.
From the point of view of labour organizations there are two distinct types of needs to be addressed regarding the use of CBAs:
- On one side, you have the Union’s members requiring efficient access to their own CBA in order to learn and understand their rights. They need simple but advanced searching capability within the body of those often huge documents that they have no intention of ever reading from top to bottom. Like everyone else today, they expect their CBA to be usable on any device. When a question crosses their mind, they want to quickly locate the corresponding section in the CBA, then move on to something else.
- On the other side, you have representatives, professional staff and lawyers requiring more advanced knowledge management capabilities. Efficient access is not enough for them: they would like linking between the CBA’s sections and corresponding arbitration awards, they want to highlight and keep notes to prepare for upcoming bargaining, and most importantly they need to share some of this knowledge with colleagues. They are looking for an information system that can support them in their day-to-day tasks.
For years, Lexum has been implementing legal information technologies serving similar purposes for a broader audience. The CanLII website, for instance, is very successful in providing the general public with online access to primary legal information while serving the more advanced legal research needs of lawyers. Our Zoupio product, initially designed to improve access to professional and technical documentation (larger works and commentaries, for example), packages some of the same technologies (file converter, search engine, highlighter, etc) and embeds them within any website while enabling authenticated users to add a private layer of knowledge on top of the original documents.
What is new and worth noting, and the main reason for this post, is the use of such generic legal information technologies by the actors of a particular field of law in order to improve access to domain-specific information – CBAs in this case. The fact that organizations representing both unions and employers are involved clearly highlights the prevailing needs in the labour sector.
One example is provided by the Alliance québécoise des techniciens de l’image et du son (AQTIS), which recently adopted Zoupio for the provision of its CBAs. Instead of being limited to downloading a PDF, AQTIS members can now dynamically browse their CBA with an HTML5-responsive interface integrating in-document search based on the same search engine used on CanLII (see the English version of the CBA for films, for instance). Comparative search is also made possible using the dashboard designed for this purpose. (Note that only 3 of their 7 CBAs are currently translated into English.) Furthermore, AQTIS representatives and staff have the possibility to log in to customize their own private versions of the CBAs by adding highlights and notes. AQTIS created groups based on existing internal teams enabling representatives to share individual notes with colleagues. The days when representatives were emailing themselves a copy of a CBA before leaving on the road are now past.
Another example with national impact is provided by Lancaster House, which launched a new contract clauses service based on the same technology in June. The Contract Clauses Service provides guidance on collective agreement language for negotiators on both sides of the table. It includes actual contract clauses from current collective agreements negotiated across Canada in both the public and private sectors, and provides authoritative commentary.
Other Unions have chosen to adopt the same approach, which should be deployed over the months to come, including the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), and the Syndicat des employés de Vidéotron Limité (SEVL). Some law firms operating in the labour sector have also jumped on board, but in their context the case for use is in-house management of CBAs.
The big benefit for all of those organizations is to share mature technologies developed for broader audiences in order to fill domain-specific gaps. Access to CBAs is in desperate need of being improved. Instead of designing custom applications specifically tailored to these documents at high cost and high risk, those organizations took the decision to rely on the technology already used to process and publish Canadian legislation and case law at a larger scale. While CBA-specific bells and whistles may not all be included from the get-go, benefits are immediate and certain for members, representatives and lawyers in need of practical solutions to their everyday challenges.
Considering its early success in the labour sector, Lexum is currently reaching out to unions, associations, employers and law firms involved in labour law. It can be hoped that this initiative will have a lasting impact on the level of access to CBAs across Canada.
— Pierre-Paul Lemyre