Master Agreements vs. Local Contracts
Separate local unions (whether or not affiliated with the same international) having contracts with the same employer or group of employers have several options in bargaining. Among them are:
(1) They can bargain separately, thus making it easier for the employer to play one off against the other; or
(2) They can seek a master agreement; or
(3) They can coordinate separate contract negotiations.
This is the alternative preferred when employers will not accept a master agreement and locals want to increase their bargaining strength.
The courts usually recognize that separate locals pooling efforts to obtain uniformity of labor standards are pursuing a legitimate union goal. But each case is decided on its own merits. Normally, neither the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) nor the courts will question a local’s attempts to seek pay scales, expiration dates, fringe benefits and other substantive contract items identical to those of another local in the absence of evidence of a motive to force a master agreement on a unwilling employer.
Such evidence can be deduced from statements made publicly or in bargaining sessions. Parallel action in and of itself is not illegal and cannot be used as evidence of an unlawful motive. However, unions seeking to force an employer (by striking, for example) to accept a master agreement where none previously existed risk successful challenge in the courts.
In cases arising out of challenges to coordinated bargaining, courts have looked at the facts as well as the union’s conduct. Thus in a case involving the Utility Workers, it was found that “From the outset of negotiations until final agreements were reached, the respondents here (Utility Workers) demanded and insisted that identical offers had to be made for all of the units.” In other words, negotiations were not conducted separately and the NLRB, relying on court precedents, ruled against the union.
Composition of the Bargaining Committee
If a local lodge wishes to have members from other locals on its committee, the employer must negotiate with the committee as designated. Such “travelers” are members of the committee like any others and their role is determined by the committee itself.
At least two appeals courts have upheld the right of local unions to include members of other unions on their negotiating committees. Companies may not refuse to bargain so long as such committees bargain solely on behalf of employees represented by the particular local union. Courts have found an employer is required to meet with individuals selected to be on the bargaining committee picked by the union. An employer may not refuse to bargain merely because a bargaining committee includes employees of other plants who are members of other unions.
Leave for Coordinated Bargaining
If the agreement provides for paid or unpaid leave for union business or it has been past practice, such leave must be granted to union representatives who have been elected or appointed to bargaining committees of other locals. An employer denying such leave may be violating Section 8(a)5, which requires bargaining in good faith with representatives of the employees.
In an NLRB case Indiana & Michigan the Board found no evidence of union attempts to force company-wide negotiations. Accordingly it ruled that the company’s denial of leave to a “traveler” member of the bargaining committee along with its refusal to schedule weekend meetings, effectively denied its employees representation by that member.
Further, it has been held that since employers have a duty to provide unions with information needed for collective bargaining, refusal to permit attendance, even without a specific contractual provision, violates the employer’s duty. This is because coordinated bargaining conferences as well as negotiating sessions are an essential source of information not obtainable through any other means.
In Procter & Gamble Manufacturing Co., the employer was found to have committed numerous unfair labor practices including:
(1) Refusing to make its plant premises available for the purpose of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement . . . (and refusing) to pay its plant employees on the negotiating committee for lost working time.
(2) Denying uncompensated leave and/or vacation time to its employees where the purpose of such leave is to attend and participate in contract negotiations.
(3) Refusing to sign an agreed upon collective bargaining contract.
(4) Suspending or otherwise disciplining employees for engaging in protected concerted activity.
(5) Threatening employees that the participation in negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement by persons not employed in the appropriate unit as representatives of the union engaging in such negotiations, would result in a less favorable contract for the employees in the appropriate unit.
Among other remedies, the company was ordered to cease and desist from refusing to sign a contract simply because a member of the bargaining committee was not in the affected unit. Moreover, the employee in question was awarded back pay and the removal of disciplinary notices from his file.
A bargaining committee can legally propose a master agreement or uniform contract provisions for several separate locals. But if the employer rejects such a proposal, it must be withdrawn and the individual contracts negotiated separately. In the absence of specific actions or statements demonstrating a union’s attempt to force uniform contract language, mere proffering of the proposal is not evidence of unlawful intent.
A union may also lawfully pursue uniform wages or other parallel contract provisions. The NLRB and courts will carefully examine the circumstances and history surrounding efforts to obtain uniform contract language. However, they have permitted unions negotiating separately to insist on a common provision as long as it is not linked to a common uniform comprehensive package.
In Phelps Dodge the Board approved the union’s demand for uniform contract language because of the manner in which negotiations were conducted. The court noted that “separate negotiations were conducted at each of the company’s units. No bargaining was conducted at any unit with regard to wages, terms, or employment conditions at other locales.”
Clearly, the key to successfully overcoming a challenge to coordinated bargaining is a showing that each contract was settled on its own terms and without reference to the content of another contract. The Board has ruled a union may not “force the contract terms negotiated for one unit upon the other units, by delaying and impeding negotiations and withholding final settlement until their unlawful object of unit merger (has) been accomplished.” Citing NLRB v. Insurance Agent’s International Union, the Board restated the principle that “Activities in isolation may be wholly innocent, lawful and `protected” by the Act, but that ought not to bar the Board from finding, if the record justifies it, that the isolated parts are bound together as the parts of a single plan. . . .The plan may make the parts unlawful. Stated otherwise, a policy such as uniformity, innocent in and of itself, can in context become a vital part of an illegal overall pattern of conduct.”
Ratification procedures have been found acceptable where it could be shown no attempt was made to force a master agreement or change the bargaining unit. Specifically, it is legal for a local to withhold agreement on a contract until another local or its international has reached an agreement. However, the Board has disapproved a union’s refusal to sign pending a satisfactory conclusion between the company and another local when:
(1) This matter was not placed on the bargaining table with other issues, and
(2) The refusal came after all the terms of the agreement had been settled.
In these circumstances, the Board viewed the local’s refusal as a stumbling block improperly based on an extraneous issue.
It is also legal for several locals with a common interest to pool their contract acceptance votes, as long as each contract is voted on individually. The court and the NLRB both recognize that where units are performing the same work and the company has a history of shifting work among units, uniformity of wages and contract expiration dates vitally affect the “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” at each plant. Without a common expiration date, any union striking for a new contract might have to “bail with a sieve” while the employer shifted its production activities to the other plant or plants.”
In the Frito-Lay case cited in footnote 1, the court cited cases in which group voting among employees in separate units was upheld because the working conditions negotiated in one unit may substantially affect the working conditions of the other units.
Strike Votes and Strikes
In the IAM, strike decisions must be made by individual lodges, subject to approval by the Executive Council. These procedures are not changed by coordinated bargaining.
The protection available to members of one union when members of another union go on strike depends on contract language.
For example, if Local A strikes and Local B assists by striking in sympathy or refusing to handle work from Local A, Local B members can be replaced, but not dismissed, if:
(1) Local B’s contract permits members to refuse to handle work from struck location;
(2) Local B’s contract specifically permits “sympathy strikes.” (Board and the court decisions during the Reagan/Bush era have held that a general “no strike” clause does prohibit sympathy strikes.)
Similarly, if Local A sets up a picket line at Local B’s plant, it may be honored if Local B’s contract specifically permits such activity.
Clearly, the more protections members have under their contract the more effective their lodge will be in working with other IAM lodges to achieve greater strength through coordinated bargaining.