Deal or No Deal on Union Contracts?
As I've argued in the past, the U.S. needs to reform the arduous course of forming unions in order to rebuild the American middle class. But we also need to focus on the process of negotiating itself. Recent research by Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University finds that employers frequently continue the campaign of delays and intimidation that lead up to union elections during the negotiation of the union's first contract. As a result of employers' often illegal refusal to bargain in good faith, more than half of workplaces still lack a collective bargaining agreement a full year after a union is elected. In 37% of workplaces, there is still no contract two years after the union election. For one in four workplaces, there is still no contract more than three years out. If unions are effectively blocked from achieving anything on their members' behalf, there is little point in forming a union in the first place.
This discouraging record of contract negotiation explains why the Employee Free Choice Act not only makes it easier to organize a union, but includes measures to ensure that employees and management agree on a first contract swiftly. Under EFCA, if negotiations on a first contract drag on for 90 days without being resolved, either the union or management can refer their dispute to a federal mediator. If the mediator is unable to reach a deal within an additional 30 days, the dispute will go to binding arbitration with the arbitration agreement binding for two years.
While the Drum Major Institute has been strongly critical of binding arbitration in cases where individual employees or consumers face larger and better equipped corporate opponents on what amounts to an uneven playing field, the process is more likely to produce a fair result when unions and companies meet each other as equals over the bargaining table. Indeed, a recent Economic Policy Institute summary of how first contract arbitration works in Canada observed that "with the guarantee of a contract at the end of the process, both sides would focus on actually negotiating instead of stalling or filing unfair labor practices charges."
When both working people and their employers genuinely aim to come to an agreement about workplace issues, collective bargaining can be a democratic and rational process. Reforming the rules to make mediation and arbitration an option for first contracts will help to ensure that good faith negotiations carry the day.