Words Matter: Draft CBA Clauses with Precision

Lawyers stress over words. It’s our job. We don’t get to say, “you knew what I meant.” We must explicitly say what we mean.

When negotiating labor contracts, we sometimes take a lot longer than people expect us to when crafting language to go into a CBA. We look at all angles and stave off any potential ambiguity that can harm our client in the future.

Teamsters Local 414 did not do that when negotiating its CBA with United Natural Foods.

The union initiated two strikes against the company. The company sued the union in court alleging the strikes violated the CBA. The union argued it couldn’t be sued, rather the company had to arbitrate the issue outside of court.

Fatal to the Teamsters’ position was the language of the grievance and arbitration procedure; it was only meant to address “employee concerns and disputes.”

The Seventh Circuit said “Nowhere does the contract signal that the reach of the arbitration provision is meant to be broader than that of the grievance process and, if so, what types of additional issues the parties agreed to submit to arbitration.”

Basically, if you can’t grieve it, you can’t arbitrate it.

And grievances were only for employee disputes, not the no-strike clause. Company wins. The case avoids arbitration.

Words matter. Choose them carefully.


Matt Austin is a nationwide management labor lawyer. Labor laws govern virtually all private-sector employees regardless of union membership. Proactive management of labor relations is critical to maintaining flexibility and increasing profit.

Matt also runs Austin Legal’s HR Legal Compliance Program that, for a small monthly fee, ensures HR decisions are protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Matt’s experience is deeply rooted in helping manage many aspects of his clients’ businesses. To effectively manage labor relations, he must also manage budgets, forecasts, new growth areas, and projected market corrections. High emotional intelligence is also critical to negotiating union contracts and to properly advise HR Legal Compliance members through the nuances of the law, its application to their companies, and how it will be received by employees.

You can reach Matt via email at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.