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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.