Collective Bargaining 101, Part I: Forming the Unit

Based on my own knowledge before becoming a union rep (even with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and three years of law school), my perception is that most people – including politicians and union members – don’t really understand the laws (including rules, regulations and cases) around collective bargaining. So, without further ado, here is my attempt to explain what it’s all about:

Remember the idea that the parties to an employment deal were equal? That concept is called “at will” employment and is the common law in situations where collective bargaining does not exist.  The employee can quit whenever s/he wants and the employer can dismiss the employee for whatever reason(s) s/he has.  In theory, the parties have the same, although opposing, power in the relationship.

Well, it wasn’t true hundreds of years ago and it isn’t true now. The employer almost always has the upper hand.

Why? Because an employee needs a job in order to make the rent, buy food, and pay for all the other usual human activities that require money. She usually can’t be without a job for any extended period of time. Practically speaking, even if she wants to quit, it is difficult to do so.

On the other hand, an employer typically has at least several potential employees waiting in the wings and other employees to pick up the slack while the hiring process is going on. It’s relatively easy to fire an employee in an at-will situation.

So, unions (often Associations for professionals) were formed to bring about a sense of equality. Lots of employees get together – as a single entity – to deal with the employer about workplace matters, including the very important topic of job security. Simple, right? Uh-uh.

Let’s say you and your colleagues work at a paper mill. Some of you tend the paper machines; some are welders; some are mechanics; some perform clerical services; and some drive trucks. You all agree that there needs to be some equity with your employer, but there are all those pesky details to work out:

  • Do you all form a union together?
  • Will there be some separation based on position descriptions?
  • Should you join with an already-established union or create one of your own?
  • What are the rules for joining an old or creating a new?
  • Who makes those rules?
  • Once formed, who does the union talk to in management?
  • What does a collectively-bargained agreement (contract) look like?
  • How long does it last?
  • The questions go on and on…

First, who’s in the union? This is actually a harder question to answer than it might appear. Welders may think of themselves as being more important in the paper mill hierarchy than mechanics. An individual truck driver may also have an electrician’s license and so has been paid better than another person with just a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Management may (and probably does) have very different views about what people and positions do than the individuals occupying those jobs.

So, the first task for us is to think through which jobs belong together. Here, it’s important to emphasize that it’s POSITIONS, not people, that we need to consider. Individual welders may come and go, but the position of welder remains. So, in the example above, we could put all the welding positions together along with the machine tender positions, plus any mechanics employed by the mill. That would leave the clerical staff and the truck drivers. Do those positions logically belong with the tenders/mechanics/welders? In some paper mills, they might; in others, no.  In this situation, let’s assume the clerical staff and truck drivers are not part of the group.

The tender/mechanic/welder group – as a whole – is known as a “bargaining unit” because it’s that group of positions/employees that will someday be negotiating a contract with the employer.   Each position in the unit is a “[bargaining] unit member”. Only those individuals who pay union dues are “union members”.

At this point, you may be thinking “Couldn’t they have come up with better, less confusing, names?” That would have been nice, but it’s not the case. We’re stuck with what we’ve got.

Next: Collective Bargaining 101 (part II), Forming the Union

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1 Comment

Filed under Collective Bargaining

One response to “Collective Bargaining 101, Part I: Forming the Unit

  1. Gisele

    Good explanations. I know a few people who need to become familiar with this information…

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