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What is a “union contract?”

July 31, 2019 Updated: September 8, 2020

Kroger #410 Members

In a non-union setting, the employer makes all the rules. They may promise to listen to employee input, but at the end of the day, they aren’t required to take any of that input seriously and ultimately still get to decide what the final policies are. But in a union setting, the rules are negotiated by the union and the employer with the union representing the best interests of the workers and the employer representing the best interests of the company.

The union has the right, as well as the legal obligation, to speak with one voice for all the employees that make up what is known as the “bargaining unit,” or employees covered by a particular contract. When we talk about having a “union contract,” what we mean is the official rules that have been agreed upon by the employer and the union, and that have also been voted on and accepted by the majority of the union membership covered by the contract.

How do contracts help a workplace run smoothly?

Contracts can help ease possible tensions between you and your managers by making it really clear what the agreed upon rules are, as well as what to do when they are violated. Confronting your manager one on one can end up feeling like a personal attack or criticism with someone you have to work with every day and maintain a good relationship with. In the end, many people just decide to let minor problems go rather than risk creating an uncomfortable situation or even just seeming like they aren’t a team player.

With a written contract and union representation you have someone to call who isn’t your boss who can help you get the issue resolved if a problem comes up. It can also help you make sure you’re taking advantage of all the benefits you are entitled to by clearly spelling them out.

What does a union contract cover?

So what goes into a contract? Anything the union members feel is important and that can be successfully negotiated with the company is fair game. This usually covers the basics like wages, raises, processes for discipline and termination, safeguards against favoritism, scheduling, retirement benefits and health care, but can also include creative language for concerns specific to the unique needs of the bargaining unit such as language protecting LGBTQ workers’ rights, weather-related policies, rules regarding accommodations for religious beliefs, or policies regarding the impact of online sales or automation. This is one of the main advantages of having a union contract instead of just relying on labor law alone – getting a law passed is time-consuming and may result in rules that aren’t even appropriate for all worksites. A contract gives you more control to make enforceable rules that are more of a custom fit solution rather than one-size-fits all.

How are contracts formed?

Many times unions use pre-bargaining polls or surveys to take the pulse of what the hot button issues for the membership are, but they often also have a pretty good sense of what’s been going on just from the kinds of grievances and other issues that have come up since the last round of negotiations with the company.

Exactly how the negotiations or bargaining process takes place is often determined in the individual contracts, but in general, a team of representatives from the union is pulled together who will be the ones responsible for sitting down the employer and going over proposals. This team is referred to as a “bargaining committee.” Because negotiations themselves are time-consuming and require a tremendous amount of effort from everyone involved, they are often necessarily small teams that can act efficiently and get work done while still remaining large enough to represent the needs of the unit as a whole.

Formal negotiations often begin with the union bargaining committee presenting the initial proposals to the company at an official negotiations session at a time and location agreed upon by both sides. Either at that same session or in a future negotiations session, the employer then presents their proposals. The process always includes face-to-face formal discussions with notes taken so there is a record of what was said in case there is a dispute later on. Sometimes negotiations are led by a single representative who acts as a spokesperson the whole time, or alternatively there may be multiple spokespeople for different issues within the contract.

Both sides go over point by point all the proposals in the contract, which can be quite time consuming, but when both sides reach a tentative agreement about what the final rules should be, there’s still the question of having them formally adopted by each side. For the employer, this might mean having it voted on by their board of directors or some other type of approval from a higher up in the company. For the union, this means taking the final contract to the members for a vote. Actual voting can take place through ballots in the mail or at in person meetings.  We call this vote to accept a contract a “ratification” vote.

If the majority of the bargaining unit votes to reject the contract, however, sometimes it’s back to the drawing table and the union and the employer continue trying to work out a solution that will work for both sides. If common ground can’t be found, a neutral third-party mediator may be called in. Worst case scenario, the union may vote to go on strike if the employer continues to refuse to budge. The employer version of this is called a “lock out,” which is when the employer closes the facility.

Both strikes and lock outs are rare as both sides have quite a bit of incentive to avoid them, but often negotiations only start to get news coverage if there is a strike or a lockout, which can lead to a false sense of how common they really are. Annually, only about 1% of negotiations end in strikes. Smooth labor negotiations rarely make the news, even when they result in significant improvements to wages and benefits.

Contracts usually have a specific amount of time that they are good for before they expire, generally around 2 to 5 years. Once that term is up, it’s time for the union and the employer to sit down at the table again and negotiate a new contract, usually taking the old one as a starting point. The whole process starts over, ending with the members ratifying the new, hopefully-improved contract.

Without unions, workplaces operate like dictatorships: decisions are made by an elite few while workers bear the consequences of policy decisions. Democracy can be a sometimes messy process, but the end result is worth it – better workplace policies that fairly take into consideration the needs of both the employer and the employees.

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