Renegotiating Collective Bargaining Agreements

While planning for renegotiating an expiring collective bargaining agreement should commence many months before the contract expires, the actual face-to-face bargaining usually begins about two months before the contract terminates. Renegotiations are sometimes a smoother process than negotiating the first contract because the parties are familiar with each other and their goals. However, if the company and union have competing agendas and goals or if the company rebukes many of the union’s demands, the bargaining process will be much more difficult than negotiating an initial contract.

Although smoother, renegotiations are still conducted across the bargaining table like first contract bargaining, and both sides continue to submit proposals and counterproposals to each other. The goal of achieving the best possible outcome is still paramount to each side. So tempers can still flare, requests for information can still be plentiful, and lingering animosity between the company and union from events that occurred at previous bargaining sessions or during the life of the contract can influence the tenor and activity at the table.

Companies that believe they can negotiate their own contract – instead of retaining a labor relations professional – risk agreeing to seemingly benign contract clauses that have treacherous impact on their companies or unwittingly creating unfair labor practices for things they said at the bargaining table. For example, when pressed for raises, do you know legal difference between unwilling to pay and unable to pay? Answer: It’s big.

Some of the terms in the existing contract expire when the contract expires, but most continue after expiration. Traditionally, once a contract expired, the dues check off clause also expired, and employers were not required to collect union dues. This meant the union must collect dues from each member individually, and employees are less eager to pay union dues when it comes out of their bank accounts rather than paychecks. The pro-union National Labor Relations Board recently ended this practice, and for the first time in over 50 years allowed dues deduction clauses to remain viable after the expiration of a union contract.

Health insurance is usually a key point of renewal contract bargaining. Employers can generally go to impasse over the health insurance and implement their bargained for health insurance on an emergency basis so workers do not lose insurance if the contract expires mid-negotiation. Otherwise, impasse is only available if neither side is willing to make any further counterproposals on any of the other contract clauses.

No matter if you are renegotiating a first contract or the company’s 100th contract, employers must pay very close attention to their conduct, language, and proposals made and accepted during renegotiation bargaining. And when in doubt, seek legal advice on the potential ramifications of bargaining antics or proposals.

Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in central and northeast Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at 614.285.5343 or email him at Austin@LaborEmploymentOSHA.com.

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