Union Contracts

A union contract is a legal document that contains provisions related to workers’ rights and benefits. Contracts are the result of bargaining between the union and the employer beginning with the union’s initial proposal and followed by negotiations on items that affect the job. Meetings, discussions, and survey results may be used by the union to find out what issues are important to the workers. After a majority of voting employees approve their contract language it then goes into effect.

There are many things that can and do get negotiated into contracts; they are tailored for each industry, shop, factory, store, etc. It is extremely important to remember that while looking at union contracts for other workplaces can give you some idea of what is possible, your contract will NOT necessarily have those provisions.

Most contracts are about 25-30 pages long, yet fairly easy to understand. They usually last between 3 and 5 years. Below is a list of what is usually included in a union contract:

  • Union Shop: A provision stating that all employees contribute to the cost of servicing the membership, enforcing the contract and bargaining for better benefits. It is in the collective group’s best interest to have a union shop, as this gives workers much more strength at the bargaining table and in enforcing the contract!
  • No Discrimination Policy: Employers cannot discriminate against employees because of union membership, age, creed, color, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, etc.
  • Seniority: Seniority is intended to reward people who have put the most time into their job. Seniority is used to determine in what order employees are laid off in the event of a lay-off, in what order employees are called upon to work holidays, etc. It is often used to determine who gets promotions, but there are usually job classification systems that ensure that people must have a certain level of knowledge to fill a certain position.
  • Grievance Procedure: One of the most important parts to the contract, grievances provide a way for conflicts between management and employees to be fairly resolved. If an employee feels he or she has been wronged and cannot resolve it with management, a union representative will meet with management to try to resolve the matter. If that fails, another attempt is made with upper management. If that fails, a neutral arbitrator is called in to decide the issue; their word is binding.
  • Hours and Overtime: Usually, 40 hours at 8 hours a day is defined so that any more than 8 hours worked in one day or 40 hours worked in one week require overtime payment.
  • Work Breaks Defined: This provision usually provides two 15 minute breaks per 8 hours worked.
  • Union Stewards: Union stewards are simply employees who represent the union on the job site. They make sure the contract is not violated, help employees who have problems with management, etc.
  • No Strike/No Lockout: During the duration of the contract, the union may not strike and management may not lock employees out of the workplace.
  • Management Rights: Under this provision anything not covered explicitly in the contract remains the sole domain of management. Thus, an employer still has control over how the store or plant itself functions.
  • ABC Contributions: This is NOT compulsory, but employees who wish can support the union’s political action committee, which works to promote pro-worker ballot measures and candidates for public office.

What follows varies from contract to contract. These are the areas in which employees need to prioritize what they would like to bargain for in a contract. It is unlikely in a first contract that all of these provisions would be covered. The process of renegotiating contracts every few years, however, is intended to build upon what employees have and make the contract even better.

  • Wages: Union contracts typically define rates of pay.
  • Raises: Contracts will lay out the raise systems for the duration of the contract.
  • Shift Differential: Unpopular/inconvenient shifts can be awarded a slightly higher wage – either a flat rate (so much per hour) or a percentage of the employee’s normal wage per hour.
  • Health Care: Union health plans are among the best in the nation.

Again, remember that while looking at other contracts can provide some information, what you negotiate for in your contract depends on what is important to employees in your workplace.