A Fair Tactic or Not?
March 14, 2007 9:26 AM   Subscribe

How and when can a company impose a union contract?

I belong to a union in a traditionally unionized industry.

Our leadership negotiated a new contract that we're suppose to vote on this weekend. The problem is that much of the membership is opposed to it and in a fair fight it might be easily rejected.

Our union president thinks it is a great contract and seems to be acting like a shill for the company. Rumor is that she's going to try and scare everyone into voting for it by claiming that if we don't, the company will impose a worse contract on us.

How true and likely is that? It doesn't seem like the two sides have talked enough for the company to claim we're at an impasse. They've met maybe a dozen or so times over two months.

If her tactic is unjustified, what can I say to rebut her?

BTW, this private sector. I know that many of the public sector union rules are different.
posted by 14580 to Work & Money (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What country are you in? If you're in the US, which state are you in?
posted by mr_roboto at 9:33 AM on March 14, 2007

My union just went through this. I doubt very much your company could impose a contract on its unionized employees. I imagine what your union president is saying is that whatever concessions the company gave in this round of negotiations will be taken off the table if the contract is voted down. Basically that the company will start playing hardball. Our union prez said the same thing but the members voted the contract down anyway. Lo and behold management immediately made some key concessions and we had a new contract to vote on. It wasn't perfect but at least a majority could support it.

Long story short, demand answers from your union leadership, whether in a one-on-one or a general membership meeting. You pay dues, they work for you. And if you don't like the contract, don't vote for it.
posted by otio at 10:00 AM on March 14, 2007

In the US, if a company declares Chapter 11 Bankrupcy, it can petition the judge to change the terms of its labor contracts, and if the judge agrees to do so then the terms are imposed by court order. Obviously the union gets to plead before the judge before a decision is made, but there have been several cases (most notably certain airlines) where this happened and resulted in a substantial reduction in wages and benefits to union workers.

However, declaring Chapter 11 is not without costs and negative side effects for the company; it isn't something they do lightly.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2007

I'm not aware of any means whereby a collective bargaining agreement (your "contract") can be "imposed" upon a bargaining unit that didn't vote to accept it. IANALL, so I could be wrong about that, of course.

In any event, though, management might be able to stage a lock-out when the existing contract expires, employing replacement workers at open-market terms. Management's willingness to do this will depend upon the availability of suitability replacement workers and vulnerability to attack (politicians and other unions can mess with some companies in some places more easily than others).

If a lock-out is impractical, the bargaining unit could end up working without a contract for a protracted period of time.
Sometimes working without a contract isn't the end of the world, particularly if the economics of the situation are that the new contact would likely involve (as is often the case) health care or pension concessions which more than offset wage increases.
posted by MattD at 10:51 AM on March 14, 2007

Chapter 11, of course, is a great way to modify all obligations, as SDB says...
posted by MattD at 10:52 AM on March 14, 2007

When a new contract isn't approved before an old contract expires, businesses will often continue to "impose" the old contract until a new contract is negotiated and approved. Sometimes that new contract will include retroactive changes, sometimes it won't.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2007

Union organizer here, ashamed that people still have to worry about their union doing this sort of thing. I hope your president isn't truly as bad as this makes her sound, but all too many union presidents are. Anyway, here's the deal:

Your old contract probably contained an arbitration clause, that means that if the union and company couldn’t agree on something, be it a grievance or contract negotiations, they could take it to an independent body. When your contract expires, the arbitration clause expires too.

If the union and company negotiate and cannot agree despite many attempts to resolve the issues (and they must have negotiated in good faith) they have reached "impasse". Impasse does not mean 12 times over two months, impasse means many times over more than a year, with a lot of back and forth and zero movement on key things.

If the old contract is still in effect (and has arbitration) the new contract then goes to arbitration as detailed in the old contract (this is why you generally try to negotiate before the old contract expires). If not, the company may impose their "last, best offer". They cannot take things off the table that they have previously offered. They cannot say, "Ok, since you don't agree, you get nothing". This does not mean you have a new contract, you would still have to vote on what the company imposed (this is where it gets very messy).

Sounds like someone is trying to scare you. I don't know enough about the situation or your union to know who. Do you have open bargaining (where any union member can sit in)? If not you should press for it. IAAUO, but IANYOU, but I'm curious about which union and industry this is, and I might be able to give you a little more advice via email.

Crouton: When the old contract expires, the company may not unilaterally change working conditions, pay etc. It's a little more complicated, but essentially the old contract remains in force by law.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:24 AM on March 14, 2007

I am not your proof reader either, obviously! By the way, you generally have to try all sorts of things, like bringing in a mediator before it's an impasse. Unless you've left something big out, this is not that type of situation. Your president might be claiming that the company will withdraw good proposals, but that rarely happens. You have more power in this situation than you probably feel. Talk to your coworkers and fight for something better. Good luck.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:30 AM on March 14, 2007

Response by poster: I'm in New York State, USA.
posted by 14580 at 11:44 AM on March 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far.

BTW, I'm in New York State, USA.

Our union president announced more than a year ago that she is going to retire at the end of her term next year. I don't think there's any fight left in her and I wouldn't be too surprised if she actually retired the day after our contract is ratified.

We had a contract imposed on us about 12 years ago. We won a better contract after a year of fighting and marching. The union's perseverance certainly had a lot to do with it, but it largely might have been due to the CEO dying unexpectedly. I think our president is counting on the fear of another imposed contract to shove this thing do everyone's throat.

We're also not in as strong a bargaining position now. We're faced with strong competition and we have a new corporate owner who is stronger, smarter and more ruthless than what we faced before.

Concessions on wages and work rules are not the problem, most members realize that we have to become more competitive. And we are giving up a lot, an awful lot.

The problem is that we gave the company a gold-plated management rights clause in the last contract and this time we're giving up past practice and more by allowing the company to "null and void existing provisions, agreements, understandings, procedures, practices, and rules" on the things that are most important to us. We're also allowing all kinds of vague wishy-washy new language in the contract that is going to result in years of expensive arbitration. Plus, we're giving up the right to arbitrate certain things altogether.

A lot of members besides myself see this as the end of the union, at least an effective union. Our union president does not, and I still don't know how to convince her and the others who agree with her.
posted by 14580 at 12:54 PM on March 14, 2007

If you don't mind my asking, which industry? In this climate, your place can be shuttered up and moved to a shiny cheaper place in a 3rd world country.
posted by dr_dank at 1:28 PM on March 14, 2007

In this climate, your place can be shuttered up and moved to a shiny cheaper place in a 3rd world country.

Not neccesarily, and if so, a weakened contract isn't going to help stop that.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:54 PM on March 14, 2007

Not neccesarily, and if so, a weakened contract isn't going to help stop that.

Well, I'd say not necessarily to that, too. None of us know the details of the company or industry, but it is at least possible in certain circumstances that a "weaker" (or, if you prefer, more globally competitive) contract could save business and keep jobs. In that situation, it would be up to the union members to determine whether the trade off would be worth it.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:13 PM on March 14, 2007

Response by poster: I'm in the telecommunications industry.
posted by 14580 at 2:43 PM on March 14, 2007

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