MARTIN: THE CONTRACT AVATAR

For decades labor-management contracts have been printed and distributed to all unit employees. Our grandparents walked around with copies in their shirt pockets, our parents had them on the shelves in their cubicles, but they are about to disappear into cyberspace. This evolution away from printed contracts got a wicked shove forward when Martin Malin, a Chicago arbitrator, teamed up last year with an agency’s management to deny employees a published copy of their contract.

Malin sits on the FSIP and recently told NTEU that he saw no need for management to print contracts for employees of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  (See 2010 FSIP 10)  He agreed with CBP management’s view that if an employee wants to know what her rights are let her search through the clouds of cyberspace.  Malin was not bothered by the idea that the agency can electronically track every time an employee goes on the agency’s intranet page to review the contract, how long they spend there, or what they read.

This seems shortsighted to us, but not totally irrational.  It is shortsighted because the approach that the Malin-management team pushed means that 22,000 employees could individually potentially print out the 300-page document on agency equipment at great hidden expense to management.  Another hidden cost is that CBP employees, most of whom do not sit in front of a computer with access to the CBP Intranet, need time away from the job now to read the contract on-line. Gone are the days they can take it on break (or use some other idle minutes) to find what they want.

Finally, as was inevitable, managers started one-by-one printing and binding bootlegged copies for supervisors in their chain of command.  That led to a NTEU grievance demanding copies for everyone; stay tuned for the results and costs of that fight.

(And can you imagine the reaction of Malin’s fellow arbitrators when they learn there is no printed copy of the contract for them to use in a hearing?  Sooner or later someone is going to utter these sentences, “Mr. Arbitrator, we are offering as Exhibit One a PIN number you can use when you have a computer nearby to access the agency web page.  Use the five line, 176 character URL address printed below the PIN to read the contract when you find that necessary during this hearing or while writing the decision.  Know that the agency will have access to the date and time of your visits and what pages you are looking at.  Moreover, we are likely to deposit cookies on your computer, modify your security software, and leave some temporary files behind.”)

But here is why the move away from printed contracts is not totally irrational. Most labor-management contracts are so long and filled with bargaining table jargon that they are not easy for the average employee to understand. Some might say they are reader-hostile rather than friendly. We doubt that many folks other than the union activists, LR Specialists, and a few supervisors read them at all.  At best, the average unit member pages through it when first received and then maybe consults it once a year after that.  So, even without the Malin shove, it is time for unions to think of new ways to bring the contract to their members.

Contract rights and benefits are worthless unless members know they have the rights and benefits.  Moreover, they need to be regularly reminded that the rights and benefits came from their union’s collective bargaining.  Otherwise, they will assume they were just gifts from a kind and generous management. That is fatal to a union’s membership building efforts.

Unions need to find ways not just to print or publish a contract, but to educate the covered employees on what is in there.  So, we at FEDSMILL.com gathered around our break room table, reheated the same pot of coffee for the third time, and put together a list of ideas union should consider for marketing the results of their collective bargaining efforts.  Our starting assumption was that these contracts are among the best products they have to sell employees, and they should do so shamelessly.

  • The union should send out an e-mail once a week to all employees covered by the contract explaining one of the rights or benefits of the contract.  Just focus on one right a week, keep it short, and always include advice about who an employee should see if she has a question about it, namely, a union rep.  Goal one is to get employees to read it and goal two is to get more than a few talking about it with one another.
  • Create another communication that challenges employees apply the contract.  Perhaps you send out a short case problem for them to solve or a true-false.  For example, describe five things a manager told an employee in a performance feedback meeting.  Challenge them to identify which were right, which were wrong, and what portion of the contract applies.  Give them the answer below or tease them a bit by delaying publication of the answer a day or two.  Don’t rule out providing prizes to those who enter the right answers before they are published.
  • If your cafeteria or break rooms have video screens, negotiate for the right to present “Contract Commercials” on them.  These could be two-minute video clips of various union officials promoting a contract provision.
  • Hold a lunch time open meeting and run a “Contract Bingo” session where you call out the question and folks compete to answer first.  Each right answer gets a B-I-N-G-or-O and the first to get all five wins the prize.  Perhaps a cafeteria coupon.
  • Bargain for the right to meet with employees to train them on the contract provisions of most interest to them.  No need to cover union institutional issues because they will not care.
  • Think about publishing your own Layperson’s Guide to the Contract.  It would  contain a brief summary of the 50, 75 or 100 rights/benefits of most importance to the average employee.  For example, all they need to know is that a manager must give them five work day notice before taking them off telework; they do not need the 200 words in the contract that say that.
  • Finally, create a contract avatar.  We saw this done in college to help students interact with the administration’s many offices.  Your character would be a fictional employee who moves through his work life encountering one situation after another that requires he use the contract (and his union) to get through it successfully.  Put out daily or weekly reports of what has happened to him.  If you really want to be creative, solicit employee ideas for what situation he should face next.  If he needs a name, we suggest Martin, as a tribute to the arbitrator who one day may be known as the drive-by bio-daddy of the e-contract. 

Oops!  That was not our final thought on the topic.  We want your ideas for pulling people into the contract rather than pushing the contract at them.  How can we impress on employees where these rights and benefits came from and who can help them get everything due them?  Enter your ideas in the blog box below and we will post them.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.
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