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Unifor’s Bargaining Agenda: An Introduction

(an excerpt from our 2019 “Stronger Together” Collective Bargaining Program)

What’s a collective bargaining program for?

From the earliest days of the labour movement, workers have understood the need to coordinate their efforts in order to improve working conditions. Organized workers have always aimed to establish common wages and working conditions in their workplaces,  industries and even across the economy. The goals have been to raise the floor for everyone, and make sure employers cannot pit workers against one another. Building collective strength is what a union is all about.

To achieve these goals, unions have pursued many different forms of master, pattern, coordinated,  central, and sectoral bargaining—setting common standards among different locations of the same employer, among  similar employers in a region, or even across whole sectors of the economy. To put this into practice, groups of workers come together in various councils and conferences to discuss the key issues, measure their strength,  and develop common bargaining priorities.

Typically, workers in these forms of bargaining pledge to hold the pattern and to provide support to one another in struggles that may arise. Bargaining committees then work to achieve the common goals. Advancing and publicizing a common bargaining agenda adds to the strength of individual bargaining committees. And, at times, employers, too, come to see that common standards mean they don’t need to continually compete with each other over wages and working conditions.

In Unifor, nearly half our members bargain in some form of specific coordination within their sector (see below).

There are several examples of master bargaining that cover multiple locations of the same employer. In some sectors, agreements tightly mirror one another across different employers (such as in auto assembly); in some sectors key elements of wages and other priority issues are established by a pattern (such as in forestry, energy, nursing homes, hospitals, or car dealerships in a region). While still in other sectors, there are renewed and evolving efforts to develop stronger coordinated bargaining (such as in retail, auto parts, and  telecommunications). Additionally, the Unifor Skilled Trades Collective Bargaining and New Technology Conference sets out a targeted bargaining platform for skilled trades members across the union.

What’s a bargaining program for?

• setting collective goals
• strengthening our hand in bargaining
• sending a message to employers
• delivering gains for our members
• changing the world

In a union as diverse as Unifor, with nearly 2,900 bargaining units in over 20 sectors of the economy, setting a single detailed bargaining agenda would not be possible, or even desirable. At different times, some parts of the economy are up, while others are down. And workers in different sectors will have different priorities at different times. The bargaining councils and conferences already in place, along with Unifor Industry Councils, are best able to assess detailed priorities and establish common bargaining agendas for their sectors.

But Unifor is more than the sum of its parts – this is reflected in our work to advance a common bargaining agenda on those issues that affect all of our members, and address the emerging challenges we face at the bargaining table across sectors. We take the opportunity at Convention to identify the core elements of a Unifor bargaining program, develop common goals and priorities, and to advise employers these are policies of the whole of Unifor.

Naturally, our bargaining challenges are rooted in Canada’s political and economic climate. We know that to achieve our broader goals, what we do at the bargaining table must be connected to a strong and vibrant culture of political activism and community engagement— key ingredients to what makes Unifor such a relevant organization and progressive social union.

Groups of workers come together in various councils and conferences to discuss the key issues, measure their  strength, and develop common bargaining priorities.

Unifor is more than the sum of its parts – this is reflected in our work to advance a common bargaining agenda  on those issues that affect all of our members, and address the emerging challenges we face at the bargaining  table across sectors.

Examples of Bargaining by Sector

Auto assembly:   Master bargaining at target employer, Local bargaining at each location, master pattern extended to two other employers in sequence. 17 Units, 23,000 members.

Auto parts:  Sector-wide bargaining program on seven priority items adopted in 2017, bargaining conference set as part of auto parts task force outcomes. 115 Units, 19,000 members.

Car dealerships: Several Montreal-area dealerships covered by central agreement by legal decree, others typically follow established pattern. 85 Units, 2,000 members.

Energy: Conference adopts National Bargaining Program, master bargaining at target employer, pattern extended to other employers. 9 Units, 8,500 members.

Forestry: Wage conferences establish priorities, master bargaining at target employer, pattern extended, separate patterns East and West of Ontario-Manitoba border. 280 Units, 26,000 members.

Hospitals: Ontario bargaining conference to review developments, central table in Northern Ontario, Nova Scotia legislated council of unions at four central tables. 70 Units, 11,000 members.

Nursing homes: Bargaining conference to review developments, master bargaining among major employers, key elements of pattern extended across all employers. 115 Units, 13,000 members.

Retail: In Ontario supermarkets, master bargaining at target employer, pattern extended to other employers, Industry Council adopted Canada-wide bargaining program in 2015. 110 Units, 20,000 members.

Telecommunications:  Industry Council adopted a renewed focus on coordination of bargaining dates, agendas, and proposals across units in 2017. 190 Units, 26,000 members.

Skilled Trades: Unifor Skilled Trades Collective Bargaining and New Technology Conference sets out a targeted bargaining platform for skilled trades members across the union. ~500 Units, 50,000 members.

What kind of bargaining?

Master? Pattern? Co-ordinated? Central? Sectoral?

There are many different forms of bargaining used to achieve common goals. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Master bargaining typically involves a single employer bargaining for multiple locations at the same time, often with supplementary local negotiations. Pattern bargaining refers to efforts to apply the  outcomes of a lead set of negotiations to other employers in the same sector. Coordinated bargaining is similar to pattern, but is often less formal, spread over different timeframes and addresses fewer common issues.  Central bargaining typically involves multiple employers, sometimes multiple unions, at a single table. Sectoral bargaining refers to efforts to apply the outcomes of bargaining across an entire sector, sometimes comprising multiple employers and unions, and at times even non-union workplaces.

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