• authored by Rich
  • published Fri, Apr 5, 2002

Master contracts and huge locals

Not sure where to post this so i thought the general area would be the place.

It would seem that with all the debates over this union or that union that what gets lost in all this is that one of the crushing blows to service sector workers in the grocery, nursing home and hotel industries and for that matter the packinghouse industry, is the lack of master agreements.

The sort of concession bargaining and opening up of contracts throughout the 80's and 90's has made these industries some of the worst paid unionised jobs.

No matter what union you get you're still going to be stuck in a situation where your employer will always point down the road to the other store and say their wages are lower and therefore in order to survive we need concessions.

Until workers in these industries can fight to get master agreements back on the table and have some sort of pattern bargaining they will find themselves continually in this problem.

But of course getting there means fighting your leadership to actually return to things like master contracts. The snag here is that many unions in the service sector have created huge almagamated locals that leave all power to the executive and business reps. These peopel generally don't have the same material conditions as the workers they claim to represent and therefore don't worry to much about how good or bad a deal is, their material interest is making sure that the union is stable and has a dues base. therefore it is easier for them to have huge locals that don't meet often, a membership that views the union as an insurance policy and a membership that feels it can't do anything on it own.

I think if you look back to the 30's and the building of the teamsters union, it is a method of rebuilding and expanding unions that applies today. I hope peopel on this board take some time out to read a few books about organising unions and fighting for democracy in those unions. Of particular interest i think are a series of books by a man named Farrel Dobbs, who laid the foundations and strategy for winning master frieght agreements for the teamsters union. Also in this was how they turned a local in Minneapolis into the centre of fight to build the union and fight the corrupt bureaucracy that existed.

The books are called Teamster rebellion, teamster Power, and teamster bureaucracy


  • posted by retailworker
  • Fri, Apr 5, 2002 11:00am

Can someone explain what a master contract is and what leverage a union needs that it doesn't have now to get one?

  • posted by Rich
  • Fri, Apr 5, 2002 11:52am

A master contract either covers all unionised sites of a company say like maple leaf, instead of plant by plant negoititations the whole company is covered by a master agreement on general terms of the contract. Some of these sorts of agreements allow for local issues to be dealt with on a plant by plant basis-- if one site had a different line with a different set of skills they might have additional things to negoitiate over and above the master agreement.

But the sort of agreement i was refering to was one which covers all unised workers in a specific industry regardless of company.

Take the Teamsters for example, when they broke into interstate trucking in the 1930's, they forced all the employers to negoitiate with the union together to set up a basic pay rate and other issues. THerefore all the employers had to pay basically the same and couldn't complain thaht the guy down the road was paying less and therefore they would need concessions. The teamsters wisely also used their power in warehouses to refuse to unlaod non union trucks and vis versa with non union warehouses.

Anopther way to go about this is to have pattern bargaining, which is what the CAW does in the auto industry with the big three. They pick one company that they decide is the one to start with (various reasons at different times determine the company). The fight with this company and the resulting contract is then held up as the model for the other two to either follow or improve upon. The thing this does is that if say Fords gives up a good contract, and GM doesn't then GM gets struck while Ford continues to produce putting GM in a bad position and usually forcing them to negoitiate.

The old Packinghouse workers used to do the same thing until the mid 80's when they began to break, after merging into UFCW, and allowed different companies to open up contracts and re negoitiate lower wages and two tier wag contracts etc..

This meant that the whole chain fell apart and it became a race to the bottom as we can now see with the maple leaf chain, which doesn't even negoitiate as one but instead almost plant by plant, killing solidarity and the ability to shut the whole company down which in shoprt means the company just shifts production to another site and still has cash rolling in.

Unions because they settled for different contract dates, broke the pattern of unified bargaining etc.. have little leverage to get back into this without a serious push from rank and file workers to rebuild master contract, which means fighting with the union to call solidarity strikes, to push the limits of the law and to encourage workers at other plants to go out with other workers in the same comapny.

The effects of losing master agreements and dropping pattern bargaining have been massive. Look at the Stelco in hamilton it used to negoitiate together, all the locals as one, if one went out so did the others, but years ago the company broke that pattern, and now you have people stuck in crappy 6 year deals because they were a smaller weak local, even in the larger units some got stiffed on their pensions etc.. because Stelco could keep sections running while others were out.

Look at Labatts right now, or Molsons when they went shut down the Barrie plant, look at grocery chains, once a decent paying job is now a shit service job all because union leaderships broke pattern bargaining.

It will take a fight, but i believe this is the only way to return to wages going in an upward direction as opposed to downward and prevent employers from forcing us into a race to the bottom.

Hope that answers some of you questions.

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Fri, Apr 5, 2002 1:12pm

Here's something from an article called The Local Union: A Rediscovered Frontier, by Staughton Lynd.

It's a list of contract provisions that were actually achieved by a very autonomous Teamsters Local in the 1930's (the depression era) in the Midwestern US. Local 574 was a general workers local based in Minnesota during this period and was apparently a model rank and file local. It's membership grew from 75 to 3000 members in the course of about 2 years all through local level organizing. (And these guys were not mobbed up at all.)


"1. Contracts with employers to be limited to a term of one year.

2. Demands concerning wages and working conditions to be decided in consultation with the union members involved in each particular case.

3. Premium pay to be received for overtime, with the added provision that there be no overtime until all employees on the job worked their full quota of regular hours.

4. If the workweek should be reduced by legislative act, rates of pay to be increased in the proportion necessary to guarantee that there would be no reduction in total weekly. Pay.

5. Disputes over seniority standing to be settled by the union. The employer to have no voice in the matter.

6. Back pay owed to workers because of contract violations by the employer to be computed at two times the regular wage rate.

7. Formal recognition to be required from the employer of the union's right to operate its shop steward system.

8. The union retain the right to strike over employer violations of the working agreement.

9. No boss to order his employee to go through a picket line of a striking union."

A lot of people today would say this is a "wish list" of provisions that could not possibly be achieved at negotiations, yet these guys got them and during the depression and a time when unions and their members had few legal rights.

BTW, there are a lot of good books and articles out there for people interested in union reform. Want to make a list?

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Fri, Apr 5, 2002 1:24pm

Something else interesting from that same article by Lynd:

"Histories of the labor movement in the United States since the 1930's typically offer a two-stage scenario. Stage one is a time of militant, decentralized, rank-and-file mass action. Stage two features the formation of a centralized national labor organization, recognized by the employer, enmeshed in collectively bargained rights and obligations, and deeply suspicious of unauthorized action by the rank and file. Perhaps we need to imagine a third stage. Perhaps, when the bureaucratic organization has done its stabilizing work, it should become possible again to decentralize. After the creation of a culture of collective bargaining, it may be that local unions can begin to take on much of the work of negotiating and enforcing contracts. For surely an adult does not require the external discipline that may have been helpful to him or her as a child.

This third stage would increasingly cast national unions as coordinators of activity planned and carried out at a local level. It would become the challenge of a "good" national union administration to see how much centralized decision making could be devolved to local unions. Progress would be measured not by the language of the most recent [master agreement] but by the degree to which local unions had become the cutting edge of the union's work."

  • posted by lefkenny
  • Fri, Apr 5, 2002 6:34pm

A warm welcome Rich.

about unions

  • posted by siggy
  • Fri, Apr 5, 2002 6:58pm


It would become the challenge of a "good" national union administration to see how much centralized decision making could be devolved to local unions.

I'm confused. Isn't this what is already taking place and is a big part of what's wrong with the system today? Aren't Locals being suffocated by their Nationals'/Internationals' agenda?

edit = Oh yeah! Hi Rich!

  • posted by lefkenny
  • Sat, Apr 6, 2002 1:02am

I am not sure which system is better than the other. I have belonged to a small local and a larger one as well. I often thought that we would all be better off being one, but even though we are in the same field, not everone from one union local to the next wants the same.

I feel that there is strength in numbers. However if your local has as many members of one field as it does another, then often there is a conflict in the direction of the local.

On the other hand corporate locals that encompass many types of occupation usually end up only satisfying the majority of whoever controls the union. Everyone including me seem to want what is best for their unit. I hate being messed around by either fellow members of management. I see pros and cons for both, but I am looking for something else as well. The present system is just too tempting for "biz" leaders to go astray and end up in the trough. In contracts how do we balance individual needs with those of the collective? Do we have global contracts with specific articles relating to each unit as they see fit? If one unit strikes should all of the units strike?

Anyone have any suggestions??

about unions

  • posted by Bernie Hesse
  • Fri, Apr 26, 2002 6:52am

I have been reading a lot of good stuff on the board here about master agreements. Where do you start? Common expiration dates, short agreements, and a absolute ban on a tiering of wages. Dues collection by stewards might help the building of a tight group instead of dues check-off, but I don't know if that is feasible.
It is all about shop floor solidarity and workers talking to each other and collectively standing up to the boss instead dialing up the business rep.

  • posted by weiser
  • Fri, Apr 26, 2002 8:13am

about unions said:


I feel that there is strength in numbers.

That statement shold be fact. However, when you look at the UFCW and the Canadian grocery industry, you see it's fallacy.

That statement should be fact. However, when you look at the UFCW and the Canadian grocery industry, you see it's fallacy.

There is no strength in numbers if the numbers aren't employed as one. In other words, if solidarity isn't sanctioned and exercised there is no strength no matter how many people you have as members.

When you see Safeway contracts expired all over Western Canada, and when you see Westfair contracts expired all over Western Canada, you would think there would be enormous strength in solidarity. There is if the solidarity is sanctioned and exercised.

What happened then? Was there lack of will on the part of the UFCW? Was there lack of strategy? Was there lack of leadership? What was lacking?

The UFCW sells itself on its numbers. What exactly does its numbers really mean for the average worker? If there is no solidarity amongst the numbers then numbers are meaningless.

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