How Do We Get a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and What Will it Provide?

Union organizers make bold claims about what the Amalgamated Transit Union might do for you: higher compensation; better health benefits; retirement benefits; more time off.
Based on what union organizers are saying, you might believe:

  • A union only needs to ask for a benefit and it will be given; or
  • A union has the power to “force” an agreement with management; or
  • Negotiations will conclude quickly.

If your gut tells you this sounds too good to be true, you’ve got a good gut. There are no guarantees any item a union asks for will become part of a final collective bargaining agreement.

Negotiations start with a blank slate. What other union members have in their agreements does not indicate what a brand new agreement will include or exclude. There are no negotiation timelines. Pay and working conditions remain status quo while the first agreement is negotiated.

Here are some basics about collective bargaining under the Railway Labor Act:

  • The negotiation process is intended to be – in fact, it’s designed to be – long and drawn out.
  • Both sides provide wish lists, starting the process.
  • The parties meet “in conference,” meaning they directly negotiate wish list items. This can last years, as long as the parties agree to keep talking.
  • If there is no agreement, the parties can ask the National Mediation Board (NMB) for mediation.
  • The NMB can keep the parties in mediation as long as they wish. This is designed to get the parties to compromise.
  • Eventually, if the parties can’t agree, they can ask for, and the NMB may, release them from mediation.
  • The parties are offered binding arbitration; if both parties agree, a third party decides the agreement. Under the arbitration scenario, union members wouldn’t vote on an agreement because there is no voluntary agreement to take out for ratification.
  • If arbitration is rejected, the NMB may ask the President to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to hear both sides and issue a report with their recommendation.
  • Thirty days after the report is issued, the parties may engage in self help; that means to lockout employees, or go on strike.
  • Finally, Congress may act to stop self help and pass a law imposing a collective bargaining agreement on the parties.

Union organizers want you to believe that if you choose union representation, you decide your fate and your working conditions. But several entities – including union leadership, arbitrators and Congress – might have the ultimate say.

Union organizers speak boldly, but you need to consider if they can truly deliver.