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

Union organizers often make bold claims about what they might do for you: higher compensation; better health & retirement benefits; more time off. Based on what union organizers are saying, you might actually believe that:

  • A union only need 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 and easily.

If your gut tells you it sounds too good to be true, you’ve got a good gut. There are no guarantees that any item a union asks for will ever 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:

  • Negotiation process is designed to be long and drawn out.
  • The process begins with both sides providing a “wish list.”
  • The parties negotiate directly over their wish list items. This can last years, as long as the parties agree to keep talking.
  • If 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 cannot agree, they can ask for release from NMB 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 sent 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. This allows for the Company to lockout its employees, or for the employees to go on strike.
  • Finally, Congress may act to stop self-help and pass a law forcing a collective bargaining agreement on the parties.

Union organizers want you to believe that if you choose union representation, you control your fate and your working conditions. But several entities – including union leadership, arbitrators, and Congress – very well could have the ultimate say. Union organizers speak boldly. You need to consider whether they can truly deliver.