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Minority Report #5

By Alexis Buss, Industrial Worker (June 2003)

At recent IWW organizer trainings, we have been talking about the kinds of agreements that solidarity unionists would make with a boss. After all, we aim to secure better conditions and build upon them -- part of that means being able to negotiate with management and memorialize the agreements we reach.

Readers of my columns will regularly see me criticize elements of contracts that I think are best left out of the picture if we are to be a strong movement. Some of these elements are desired by entrenched union bureaucracies, some are desirable for management, and some serve both interests, forsaking the workers. I'm talking about dues checkoff, management prerogatives and no-strike clauses. There are other features to contracts, like binding arbitration as the last step of a grievance procedure, time lines favoring management, zipper clauses and so on that I've been known to gripe about too.

But what are the kinds of agreements we should make? Typically I talk about agreements in terms of using direct action to gain power over specific situations and negotiating to memorialize the outcome. But there are elements in present-day contracts that are very useful. What remains to be seen is if a more encompassing contract that truly protects and expands the rights of working people can be negotiated in the present climate.

To my mind, when setting out to negotiate, workers should seek to get:

  • 1) an end to employee-at-will status;
  • 2) a grievance procedure;
  • 3) whatever economic and working condition improvements they may want and;
  • 4) a past practice clause.

Most contracts contain a "progressive discipline" or "firing for cause" clause, which effectively ends employee-at-will status. I'd be interested to hear from veteran unionists what kind of progressive discipline clauses worked well in your experiences. One that we negotiated here relied on the idea of not making it easy for staff to be disciplined for simple wrongdoing. Management was obliged for each discipline to write an essay discussing the good qualities of the person being disciplined, outline specifically how performance was to be improved, and have regular meetings with the worker to discuss progress. Because it's a bit of a pain in the ass to do this, only the most serious offenses are taken up, and the former trifling nit-picky disciplines have all but vanished.

Grievance procedures are the systematic way that issues that arise in a shop are handled. Many clauses limit the definition of a grievance to issues covered by the contract, effectively cutting off workers' ability to grieve issues not anticipated by the contract. One could argue that issues that aren't covered by the contract are free from the confines of the resolutions proscribed in the contract, so perhaps this isn't the worst thing that could happen. But having a procedure that management has agreed to follow when a any kind of conflict comes up can be very advantageous to workers.

Too often I've seen the wind taken out of the sails of organizing campaigns with promises from management that are never delivered. A clear process shows everyone when they're just being blown off, and workers can more quickly decide how to up the ante. It's my preference for the last step in a grievance procedure to effectively be 'all bets are off.' Yes, have steps beforehand -- meetings to discuss the issue, put it in writing, bring in a mediator, whatever makes sense in the structure of your workplace. But letting a third party who does not have to work under the agreement he's binding you to make the ultimate decision is not ideal. Past practice clauses effectively say, "Unless we reach an agreement, the workplace stays as it is now." What this does is put the burden of changing the workplace on the shoulders of the employer. They must come to the union to talk about changes, and the union can agree or not, or negotiate. When the workers decide that a situation needs to be fixed, the grievance procedure can be used to put the discussion on a timeline. These clauses have largely disappeared from present-day contracts, but I think it's time for a revival.