Getting Ready for Bargaining?
Get your proposals on the table
So negotiations for your collective agreement are coming up and you're wondering how you can get some input into the proposals that your union is going to put on the table. Most unions go through some kind of process of canvassing the membership for their ideas and suggestions. Some have meetings, others send out questionnaires or surveys.
As with most aspects of the relationship between unions and their members, there is no law that says the union must consult its members prior to bargaining (although most do and should) or that there is any specific process for ensuring that members have a say in what proposals are tabled. Nonetheless, member input into proposals is really critical. The collective bargaining process is very important to you, as it is the only opportunity you get to seek out improvements to your wages, benefits and working conditions. So it's really important that you not only have a good sense of what you want, but that your union knows what you want and works hard to get it at the bargaining table.
Here are a few things you can do to ensure that your union hears you on that critical question "what do we want to see in the new contract?" and that "what we want" has at least a chance of making it onto the table and into your new contract.
Find out what you've got
Make sure you know what's in your current collective agreement. If you've never looked at a copy before, this is as good a time as any. Get a copy from your steward or your union office and read it from cover to cover. Ask questions about the clauses you don't understand.
What's the process for deciding on proposals?
Find out how your union goes about getting members' input for proposals. When are meetings going to be held? Find out and make it a point to attend. If your union uses questionnaires or mail-in surveys, when are those sent out? How much time do you have to get your submissions in?
Prepare well in advance. If you only have a window of a week or so before the meeting or questionnaire submission deadline, that won't give you much time to think, do research or talk to your co-workers.
This is your opportunity to so don't let it get away. There are no limits to what you can say you want. Don't feel you shouldn't ask for something just because you don't already have it, or because it's not "industry standard" or because the company isn't going to want to give it to you. That kind of thinking would leave you with an agreement full of blank pages. On the other hand, don't be so blatantly unreasonable that your proposals will be dismissed out of hand.
What do you want?
Think about what's happening at your workplace. What kinds of problems have you been running into? Are there clauses in the collective agreement that management seems to always be violating or not paying much attention to? Is there language in the agreement that is really management-friendly (clauses with words like "in the sole discretion of management", "in management's opinion", "for reasons acceptable to the company" are examples of this kind of language) and is management going overboard exercising its discretion - in its own favour most of the time? Is it time to change some of the contract language to make it more favourable to the union and the members? Taking stock of what's actually happening at your workplace can help you identify areas where you may want to change existing language or propose new language altogether.
On the money
Give some thought to what kind of increases to wages and improvements to benefits you want to see. You need to be reasonable to a certain extent: It's not likely that you'll get a 100% pay increase but that doesn't mean you should be shy about asking for what you think is fair. Give that some thought: What's a fair wage in your opinion (and that of your co-workers)? Take into account the results of past rounds of bargaining. Have the members given the company concessions? Have they settled for less because the company cried poor? How has the company been doing financially? This is a simple question: either the company is profitable or it's not. If it's profitable, it should be prepared to share. (You can get a lot of good information about your employer's financial position by checking out its annual report or corporate web site.) Is it time to make up lost ground? Ask for what you think is fair - not what the company wants to give you. If you are hearing noises about concessions, see our article about concessions.
Do a little research. What is happening with the cost of living? Don't just go with the CPI (consumer price index); look for increases in specific areas like the cost of gas, rent, transportation, anything that affects you and your co-workers. Find out what other settlements have been in your industry (this may be tricky in the retail food and certain other segments in the service industry, since a lot of settlements... well, leave something to be desired). If that's the case, then don't confine your research to settlements in your industry. Nothing says you can't look at other industries. That way if anyone wants to soften you up with talk about "what's being paid in our industry" you can counter with "what's paid to workers in heavily unionized industries or to members of other unions". This opens up a lot of possible comparisons and here's a little known fact: It's no easier bargaining with employers in manufacturing or transportation or the public service for that matter.
Do some more homework
Get examples of contract language that you think would help you from other collective agreements. Most LRB's have a collective agreements library and you can do as much research there as you want. Many collective agreements and examples of different clauses are available on the Internet as well.
Get together with your co-workers, as many as you can get interested and talk about things you'd like to see in the union's proposals. You'll make more of an impact if there are many people looking for the same things. Get examples of how management has been exploiting the existing contract language or of problems that are cropping up that need to be addressed.
When you sit down to write your suggested proposals or if you are going to be speaking about them at a meeting, be clear and precise about what you want. Avoid using "weasel words" or language that you can drive a truck through.
What Happens Next?
- Find out from your union representatives how bargaining will take place. Who will be on the union's bargaining committee? How is that decided? Is there a member(s) who sits on the bargaining committee? How is that person(s) chosen? Put your hat in the ring if you have the opportunity?
- What will happen to the proposals that are received from the membership? Who decides what will be in the proposal that the union tables at the commencement of bargaining and how is that decision made?
- Obviously not everything that gets proposed finds its way into the new agreement. Bargaining involves some give and take so it's important that the union and the members are clear on what the priority items are. How will that be decided and by whom? What role do the members play in that decision?
- What kind of communication will you as a member receive about proposals that are dropped?
If your union reps don't seem keen on asking for a lot or breaking new ground, remind them, as often as is necessary of:
- That you need and deserve a fair wage and decent working conditions.
- That your issues and those of your co-workers are important and deserve attention.
- That progress is only made when we try really hard.
- That lousy collective agreement language and pitiful wages are something a union should be embarrassed about.
- The harm done to members by management not playing by the rules or the need for new rules to curb excesses.
- The need for the union to show leadership and determination in difficult times.
So go ahead and get at it. Good luck.