FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Three Disturbing Trends in Union Contracts

For the last 25 years or so, I’ve been paying fairly close attention to union contracts—not only those of my own International (affiliated with the West Coast paper industry), but those of other unions, other geographic regions, and other industries. It hasn’t been pleasant.

Conservatively, I would say that I have reviewed the contents of more than 150 labor agreements. Given the beating that unions have taken over the last quarter-century, this task has not only been tedious, it was tantamount to a descent into working-class Hell.

Before examining three most disturbing trends, let us consider a brief, oversimplified history of union contracts. Discounting spikes and anomalies, and ignoring “proprietary “ language that address specific needs of specific industries (airline pilots, coal miners, longshoremen, etc.), prior to the 1970s, it’s fair to say that most union contracts in the U.S. were more or less “boilerplate.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the GWI (general wage increase) overshadowed all else. To the rank-and-file, everything centered around the hourly wage rate. Because jobs were plentiful and the workforce during those decades was relatively young, healthcare and pensions were of minor interest.

Since the company provided it, healthcare was taken for granted, and since so many of the younger workers either didn’t plan that far ahead, or honestly didn’t think they’d still be employed at the same place, pensions held little interest for them. Cash is what mattered, preferably in the form of wages, but also in the form of paid vacations and holidays.

But by the late 1970s, pensions and healthcare began to draw attention. Just as television news divisions were now required to show a profit (hence the rise of “infotainment”), union benefits were now in the crosshairs. By the mid-1980s, health insurance and pensions had not only become relevant, they had become critical. And as everyone is aware, by the 1990s, this was a whole new ball game.

Money was still king of course, and always will be, but it had changed form. It had migrated from “general wages” to “general costs,” and as a consequence of this recalibration, some big-time union negotiators (notably those of the UAW and UBC) were now reporting that healthcare and pension benefits had become deal-breakers. The “bottom line” had crept inexorably closer to the top.

Predictably, with this shift in emphasis came new, toxically aggressive approaches to carving up those boilerplate provisions that unions had come to depend upon. Indeed, in addition to this boilerplate language being carved up, by the mid-1980s, contract negotiations had been “reinvented.”

Insurance premiums rose, two-tier wage plans were in vogue, traditional “defined” pensions were replaced by cash buyouts or the 401k, and traditional GWIs were being swapped for bonuses or wage “supplements.” Tradition gave way to seminar-speak.

But along with this well-publicized and, dare we say “accepted,” hollowing-out of union contracts, there have been some other, far more subtle and insidious provisions forced down organized labor’s throat. Here are three of them.

TERM OF AGREEMENT. Back when I was a contract negotiator, we had a rule: When inflation is low, go for a short (two or three year) contract, because inflation can only increase; and when inflation is high, go for the longest contract you can get, because inflation can only drop. But today, with inflation (as measured) being miniscule, it’s stunning to see unions signing six, eight, and even ten-year contracts.

Companies have convinced the rank-and-file that a long-term agreement is in their best interests. They’ve convinced them that a lengthy contract somehow translates into “job security,” as if operations can’t be curtailed and plants can’t be shut down during the term of the contract, neither of which is true.

Also, long-term agreements have the virtue of preventing “radicalism.” Lousy contract language can’t be removed, and workers can’t go on strike during the term of the agreement. Except in rare cases, an eight-year contract is bullet-proof.

2. SENIORITY. Part of the Holy Grail of a union shop has always been seniority. “First in, last out.” Promotions and vacation allocation were made on the basis of seniority. There was no gamesmanship, no playing favorites, no smoke and mirrors. Seniority was not only transparent, it was the governing principle.

Today, there is contract language that allows companies to pick and choose who gets what. They do this by having abandoned the time-honored concept of “qualified” and “unqualified,” and employing the concept of “more qualified” and “less qualified.” Admittedly, on its face, this principle isn’t totally ridiculous, but like so many “principles,” it (unlike pure seniority) has already been abused.

3. SOLIDARITY. The one thing management fears is union solidarity. They hate the Us vs. Them mentality. Accordingly, a sure-fire way to destroy it is to obliterate the line between union and management. Thus, some union contracts actually have added quasi-supervisory jobs to the progression ladder.

This means that the person who gives away overtime, schedules shifts, assigns work, and trouble-shoots on the floor is a union member. And because this kind of job calls for “leadership skills” which driving a forklift does not, even though it’s now on the progression ladder, management can ignore seniority. Despite all the pretty words and “team building” bullshit, what we’re witnessing is the dismantling of the labor movement.

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
August 21, 2019
Craig Collins
Endangered Species Act: A Failure Worth Fighting For?
Colin Todhunter
Offering Choice But Delivering Tyranny: the Corporate Capture of Agriculture
Michael Welton
That Couldn’t Be True: Restorying and Reconciliation
John Feffer
‘Slowbalization’: Is the Slowing Global Economy a Boon or Bane?
Johnny Hazard
In Protest Against Police Raping Spree, Women Burn Their Station in Mexico City.
Tom Engelhardt
2084: Orwell Revisited in the Age of Trump
Binoy Kampmark
Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum
Kenn Orphan – Phil Rockstroh
The Dead Letter Office of Capitalist Imperium: a Poverty of Mundus Imaginalis 
George Wuerthner
The Forest Service Puts Ranchers Ahead of Grizzlies (and the Public Interest)
Stephen Martin
Geopolitics of Arse and Elbow, with Apologies to Schopenhauer.
Gary Lindorff
The Smiling Turtle
August 20, 2019
James Bovard
America’s Forgotten Bullshit Bombing of Serbia
Peter Bolton
Biden’s Complicity in Obama’s Toxic Legacy
James Phillips
Calm and Conflict: a Dispatch From Nicaragua
Karl Grossman
Einstein’s Atomic Regrets
Colter Louwerse
Kushner’s Threat to Palestine: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
Nyla Ali Khan
Jammu and Kashmir: the Legitimacy of Article 370
Dean Baker
The Mythology of the Stock Market
Daniel Warner
Is Hong Kong Important? For Whom?
Frederick B. Mills
Monroeism is the Other Side of Jim Crow, the Side Facing South
Binoy Kampmark
God, Guns and Video Games
John Kendall Hawkins
Toni Morrison: Beloved or Belovéd?
Martin Billheimer
A Clerk’s Guide to the Unspectacular, 1914
Elliot Sperber
On the 10-Year Treasury Bonds 
August 19, 2019
John Davis
The Isle of White: a Tale of the Have-Lots Versus the Have-Nots
John O'Kane
Supreme Nihilism: the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto
Robert Fisk
If Chinese Tanks Take Hong Kong, Who’ll be Surprised?
Ipek S. Burnett
White Terror: Toni Morrison on the Construct of Racism
Arshad Khan
India’s Mangled Economy
Howard Lisnoff
The Proud Boys Take Over the Streets of Portland, Oregon
Steven Krichbaum
Put an End to the Endless War Inflicted Upon Our National Forests
Cal Winslow
A Brief History of Harlan County, USA
Jim Goodman
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is Just Part of a Loathsome Administration
Brian Horejsi
Bears’ Lives Undervalued
Thomas Knapp
Lung Disease Outbreak: First Casualties of the War on Vaping?
Susie Day
Dear Guys Who Got Arrested for Throwing Water on NYPD Cops
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail