Union Contracts

It's bad enough that many (most?) non-union workers have little understanding or respect for the contributions that organized labor has made to the American economy. Worse, most of them don't have the faintest idea of what is laid out in a standard union contract.

I've had people--good, well-meaning people--tell me that union contracts are "bad for the country" because they allow workers to slack off on their jobs (basically do anything they like), and management can't do a thing about it. Yeah, right. And the moon landing was a hoax, and Elvis is still alive.

If employees slack off on their job, and management fails to address it, that's the fault of management, not the fault of the worker. No union contract in existence contains a provision saying that management can't fire incompetent or unqualified workers. Just think about it: What union would have the balls to ask for such a provision, and what company would ever agree to it? On its face, the very notion is absurd.

Barely 6-percent of private sector jobs in the U.S. are unionized. That means the other near 94-percent are composed, from top to bottom, of non-union workers who, presumably, can be fired at any time for any reason. Is anyone prepared to say they have never encountered a lazy, incompetent or surly employee at one of these non-union facilities? If so, then you need to visit my local tire shop.

But one thing you can say about union contracts is that they are at once all the same and all different. They all contain boilerplate language covering such things as wages, hours of work, overtime, benefits, and the grievance procedure, and they all contain specialized language pertaining to the specific jobs being done.

For instance, there was an IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) contract I was familiar with that addressed a situation unique to the Teamsters. At this particular warehouse, workers started out as stockers, then as loaders, then as truck drivers, then, finally, as dispatchers, where they worked in the office. The jobs were allotted on the basis of seniority. No games were played, no one was bypassed, no women or minorities were victimized.

However, there was a stipulation in the contract that allowed a worker who was next in line to be a driver to remain as a loader until such time as he chose to promote up, without relinquishing his seniority. This stipulation was agreed upon in order to accommodate those workers who had had their drivers licenses suspended. Granted, such a circumstance was extremely rare, but rare or not, the company and union saw fit to address it.

While all union members are required to pay dues, these dues structures vary. Most union members pay in the neighborhood of $60-$75 per month, no matter what their wage rate. To be fairer, instead of an arbitrary figure, some unions have gone to a system where they deduct a percentage of the wage rate. A person making $25 per hour will pay higher dues than a person making $15.

When it comes to dues, SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) members adhere to a sliding scale, meaning that people like George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon are going to pay significantly higher dues than some actor who is struggling to make a living in the movies.

Professional sports unions have their own language. For example, Major League baseball players aren't required to play a day game following a twi-night doubleheader. Players contribute $70 per day during the season in union dues, which works out to roughly $12,600 per year, which seems a hefty amount until you consider that, in 2015, the contractual minimum for a Major League player was set at $507,500 per year. President Obama makes $400,000.

But the key point to remember about unions isn't just the fact that collective bargaining is, by and large, the only way an employee can extract decent wages, benefits, and working conditions, a union contract protects him from being summarily fired so the boss can give his job to his wife's cousin. Workers can only be fired for cause. Nothing could be fairer.

David Macaray is a former labor union rep and contract negotiator.