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A Brief History of Union Negotiations

by DAVID MACARAY

To anyone curious about how labor and management actually conduct contract negotiations, they should know that, even though these things are wildly unpredictable and can change from courteous and productive to acrimonious and destructive in a heartbeat, the negotiating process itself adheres to a surprisingly conservative, rigid and time-honored format.  I’ve been involved in half a dozen of them.  They’ve all been different and they’ve all been the same . . . even the ones that resulted in a strike.  

The parties begin by setting a starting date, usually one well in advance of the contract’s expiration; next, they have a preliminary meeting to lay out the ground rules and logistics (where they’ll meet, what side of the table people will sit on, what time in the morning to begin, who pays for the coffee, etc.); next, they notify the FMCS (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service), in Washington D.C, of their intention to bargain; and then, on the first day of official business, they formally exchange agendas, each of which has a Language and Economics section. 

After that, the parties spend 99% of their time doing three things:  meeting privately with their own committee members, discussing agenda items across the table, and exchanging written, initialed proposals and counter-proposals. 

These three things can require as a little as a week or two, or as long, literally, as several months.  Boiled down to its basics, a labor-management negotiation is a protracted argument over money.  It’s all about economics.  Nothing more.  Even the “language” items on the agendas have a cost attached to them.

Given the current predicament of organized labor, it’s hard to believe that there was a time, not very long ago, when companies didn’t even bother bringing an agenda to the table.  They showed up naked.  Unlike the union, which always (always!) brought along, an ambitious, detailed list of things it wanted to obtain, improve, overhaul, tweak or eliminate, it was not uncommon for companies to acknowledge that they were more or less satisfied with the way things were. 

Until fairly recently, it was the union who was recognized as the “moving party,” and the company who “fielded” the union’s agenda.  Indeed, if the union hadn’t insisted on sitting down every couple of years and hammering out a new contract, most companies would’ve happily extended the existing agreement, with no questions asked.

Management was obliged to consider the union’s list of requests for improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions—to consider them, discuss them, challenge them, deny most of them, and, ultimately, agree to accept just enough of them to avoid a strike. Traditionally, that’s how bargaining was done.

By the late seventies and early eighties, this had all changed dramatically.  And it was the Big Three automakers, more than any other industry, who led the charge.

America’s on-going love affair with cars had not only made Detroit wealthier than it ever dreamed, it laid the groundwork for the UAW (United Auto Workers) emerging as the nation’s most prestigious and influential labor union.  When the economy was chugging along on all eight cylinders, it was the UAW, more than any union in America (including Hoffa’s Teamsters), that represented the gold standard, and everybody tried to copy them. 

Every union in America maneuvered to get a contract as sweet as the UAW’s.  The Auto Workers were the first big-time union to negotiate personal holidays and paid sick leave, the first to get shift differential and exotic overtime pay, the first to get cost of living allowances, medical insurance, company pensions, iron-clad seniority, and union-autonomous shop safety programs.  The rest of organized labor followed their lead.  It’s been said that the UAW launched America’s middle-class. 

Of course, when the bubble burst, and the auto companies hit hard times, it was the UAW who paid the dearest price.  Besides losing, literally, hundreds of thousands of members due to layoffs and plant closures, the UAW was attacked; the auto companies came at them with a vengeance.  They renegotiated existing contracts, slashed wages and benefits, demanded exorbitant give-backs and concessions, and made sweeping, across-the-board changes in administrative rules and policies.

Worse, even after the auto companies had clawed their way out of the ditch and were once again making big profits, they continued their offensive.  While part of their assault was old-fashioned payback, plain and simple, another part was the recognition that the labor climate in the country had drastically changed.  Corporations now had the upper hand.  They had unions on the run; not just the UAW, but virtually every union in America. 

Companies that traditionally had signed two or three year contracts were now demanding four, five and six year deals, locking unions into punishing agreements that couldn’t be changed for half a decade, and wage scales with no mechanism for keeping up with inflation.  It wasn’t simply the frills that were being removed from these contracts, it was their heart and soul and guts.

In other words, the roles had been completely reversed. Companies were now bringing their own ambitious agendas to the bargaining table, and daring the union to strike.  These agendas were more extensive, more aggressive and predatory, than anything the unions had ever introduced.  In a word, labor relations had been “reinvented.”  

Initially, organized labor was amenable.  When the economy took a downward turn, the unions were smart enough to realize they had to open the door a crack and allow management to make the necessary adjustments.  It would have been irresponsible and unrealistic to think otherwise.  Still, given what they’d learned from a century of collective bargaining, unions remained wary and cautious, aware that the companies might use the extraordinary circumstances to do mischief. 

But even with labor’s antennae fully extended, the unforeseen happened.  Management not only burst through that crack in the door, they broke the door down and trampled it.  That door remains down.  The upshot of which is that, even today, at companies that are otherwise healthy and profitable, the union still dreads seeing management’s agenda.  That’s how radically the dynamic has shifted.

A comparison can be made to the way the Bush administration, following the attack of 9-11, used the specter of “terrorism” as an excuse for acts of foreign aggression and domestic civil liberties infringements.  Once the opportunity presented itself, the administration played it for all it was worth.  Corporate America did the same with the unions.

While it was the downturn in the auto industry that changed everything, not just for the UAW but for organized labor at large, it has to be acknowledged that, as the philosopher said, “perception is everything.”  And when President Reagan fired those 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, in 1981, what remained of labor’s perceived invincibility was more or less wiped out. 

Unions have been playing catch-up ever since.  Needless to say, with the emergence of the global economy and the loss of America’s manufacturing base, regaining their influence is going to be an uphill battle. 

Still, with the labor vs. management dichotomy being as fundamental and deep-seated as it is, labor’s revitalization is inevitable.  One can argue that the groundwork for organized labor’s resurgence is already in place.  It’s only a matter of time before the pendulum swings the other way.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

 

 


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