Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Union contracts, what are they good for?

Last week, Erik Loomis posted a summary of an article about the ongoing pilots' union negotiations with Southwest.  Loomis' point (and the excellent article he links to) are that union negotiations are about more than money -- they are also about the conditions under which employees work.  In this case, pilots voted down a proposed contract that offered them a large raise in part because Southwest demanded far more flexibility on duty hours to match other airlines  (which had managed to force those concessions from bankruptcy judges).

With the constant refrain we hear about unions being all about grabbing money, this idea of the employment environment is extremely important. I would also add that rules about firing and hiring are very important as well. My old union at the University of Michigan just settled (and essentially won) a grievance filed by a Graduate Student Instructor named Alex Chen who was offered and accepted a job in the bargaining unit, before having that offer yanked by her supervisor for spurious reasons. 

Of course, Chen lost her health insurance and tuition waiver in addition to her salary. This situation is deadly to a graduate student, who probably would have to drop out of school facing a tuition bill of more than $10,000. I've known several students in situations like this; and the psychological stress they face is extreme.

Chen reached out to the union and found out that not only did contract language back her position, but that she also scores of fellow members willing to protest on her behalf.  That article, which details what happened in the meeting, contains several fabulous anecdotes about a department program chair behaving like a stubborn child who has been caught lying about doing her homework.

An interview with Chen outlining her particular situation is here.

Anyhow, I highly recommend Loomis' post -- and the excellent comment thread, which features a really good discussion of the nuts and bolts of work rules in a contract led by a freight pilot (Major Kong) who is often found in the comment threads of progressive blogs. The thread is doubly worthwhile because it brings in information from the union and not just from Southwest, as well as discussing how issues like codeshare and subcontracts with regional airlines can undercut airline unions.

And remember -- work rules and hiring practices are just as important as wages.

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