How Long Should Contract Negotiations Take?

Image: LAT Guild

The unionized staff at the Los Angeles Times walked out of the newsroom this afternoon to protest the fact that their union contract negotiations have been dragging on for 14 months now. Is that... too long?

Employers have a legal obligation to bargain “in good faith” with their unionized employees. This, of course, is a term of art that will inevitably be tested by the immoral scum that are management-side law firms and their Republican enablers in the National Labor Relations Board. [DISCLOSURE: I believe that anti-union lawyers, consultants, and regulators are immoral scum.] If a company wants to be obstinate, it is easy for them to sit down for bargaining without making any progress, or to schedule bargaining dates too infrequently, or to stretch out the process in a million other ways. The only things that can force employers to actually bargain in good faith are effective government regulators (which do not currently exist) or direct labor power (which the LAT union is displaying today).

First contracts can take longer, and the demands of contracts vary widely from industry to industry, so it is important to establish some industry standards that people can look to to determine what is and is not reasonable. With that in mind, a little context:

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  • We, the Gawker Media/ GMG/ G-O Media union, bargained our first contract in: about six months or so.
  • We bargained our second contract in: less than six months.
  • The LA Times has been bargaining their first contract for: more than twice that long—despite the fact that they and the company have any number of other first contracts signed in their own industry over the past few years to use as guidance, which should actually make it quicker to finish bargaining.
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It’s too long!

This is not a novel issue. It is, in fact, one of the most common obstacles in the union world. One study of union elections from 1999-2003 found that a majority of new unions had not signed a first contract after a year, and a full quarter of them did not have a first contract after more than three years had elapsed. That is the equivalent of busting a union. It should not be legal. Can anything be done about this?

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Glad you asked, because the Democratic candidates are busily releasing their plans for labor rights, and if you take a look at old Bernie Sanders’ plan, for example—which has set the highest bar among all plans so far—it says right in the second bullet point:

Enact “first contract” provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract. Employers would be required to begin negotiating within 10 days of receiving a request from a new union. If no agreement is reached after 90 days of negotiation, the parties can request to enter a compulsory mediation process. If no first contract is reached after 30 more days of mediation, the parties would have a contract settlement through binding arbitration.

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You form a union. You vote. It’s certified. You begin contract negotiations in ten days. You have three months to reach an agreement; if not, you go into mediation; after 30 days, you go into binding arbitration, and a binding agreement is produced. Four months. Is it possible to bargain a new union contract in only three months? Absolutely. No problem. If the company will make the time to do it, and have the willingness to reach an agreement. Which many companies do not. Unless you make them, by law.

In conclusion please be sure that whoever you vote for in 2020 makes your boss mad.

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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer. Hamilton@SplinterNews.com