WHY DO UNIONS REOPEN NEGOTIATIONS SO OFTEN?

It is not unusual for a union to propose as part of reopening and modifying a master or term agreement that it be allowed to reopen certain articles for another round of negotiations at pre-set times during the life of the new master agreement. For example, the new term contract could have a three year term along with a right for the union to reopen five articles after 18 months and to engage in supplemental bargaining on a handful of only-partially-resolved issues during the first year of the new term contract. Why do they do this given it takes time away from other things they could be doing and can even cost the union some significant travel and per diem money? (Hint: Creating a chance to improve the conditions of employment in those areas is barely half the reason, if that.)

P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S is the answer or at least the one we would offer. Unions are political institutions and consequently the leadership needs to maintain solidarity, which in a crude sense is little more than enough political support for the elected leaders to remain in elective office and run things. That is hard to do, especially in a multi-local bargaining unit, when the leaders of those locals do not see one another often, work together on problems, and even play together a bit.

So, by creating an opportunity to assemble bargaining teams to work on labor-management issues, the union leadership is able to call the key local leaders together several times a year to work as the union’s bargaining team members. It gives the leadership of the bargaining unit/union the chance to schmooze, communicate off-the-record, bond, and form networks, if not friendships with the very people who are going to cast ballots in the next union election to fill officer positions and decide how to modernize the union’s constitution & bylaws. Without bargaining events, whether they involve reopening/supplementing term contract provisions or even major mid-term issues, it is much harder for the union leaders to get key constituents together for the face-to-face interactions that are vital to political togetherness. Getting the agency to legitimize these assemblies and perhaps even pay the travel and per diem charges, makes it all the more sweet for the union leadership.

Without lots of mid-term bargaining meetings the union leadership has to create other ways to build the sense of togetherness among its political constituents. The most obvious, namely, scheduling more training sessions on issues common to all the locals in the unit/union, is the most obvious political tool substitute, but it is more expensive for the union.

While some candidate for President of the United States have been praised for how they have used cyberspace to build political support, we have yet to see a union that has figured it out. That is understandable because it is hard; it is not just a typical public relations skill. The core challenge is politics. Hopefully, the next generation of union leaders raised on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Skype, etc. will figure out to politically leaver cyber unions.

With decided to touch on this thought today because we have heard about too many unions that are patting themselves on the back for signing contracts that will run many years without an opportunity to reassemble the key local leaders to renegotiate something. That is wonderful if a union is looking to cut down on costs and devote the spare leadership time to more valuable activities. But it also can be the root cause of the loss of widespread support for the unit’s/union’s elected leadership.

And lest LR specialist think we are once again ignoring them in a post, there is a lesson here for them as well. There are some union leaders who bring value to the agency and some who do not. This is one way, and a legal way, that agency negotiators can influence the future direction of the union.

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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