A Brief History of Collective Bargaining

Knowledge is Power

Volume CIX, No. 4April, 2009

Edan Dhanraj and Joel LeFevre
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1880 TO 2008

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Working people in the U.S. formed, joined, or participated in unions well before the Supreme Court’s ruling in NLRB vs. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company declared the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 constitutional.

In fact, through their activism and solidarity with each other, union members have enjoyed higher wages, increased fringe benefits, safer working conditions, and lawful protection from harassment and discrimination as compared to their nonunion counterparts. 

Likewise, the advances made by the labor movement, through both precedents in contract language and political mobilization, helped influence employers and the federal government to enact employment policies and legislation that elevated labor standards for all working people, union and nonunion. 

For instance:

Before the National Labor Relations Board ruled pensions a mandatory subject of collective bargaining in 1948, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) negotiated the first employer-sponsored pension and health program jointly administered by employers and the UMWA. Well before the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 provided employees with 12 weeks unpaid leave for serious medical reasons, the program initiated by the mine workers protected against all work related injuries and permanent disabilities with fully paid leave. 

During the late 40’s and throughout the 1950’s, the United Packing House Workers of America made racial and gender issues a focus of their union efforts. During the campaign, the union negotiated a no racial and sex discrimination clause which prohibited discrimination against employees and applicants. They agreed upon a racial justice committee maintained by workers, the group monitored, and thus minimized, the abuse and mistreatment of black and female workers. This contract provision came almost a decade before Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protected people from discrimination on the basis of race or gender.

In May 1950, the UAW negotiated the very first ever cost of living adjustment (COLA) linked to productivity increases at GM. In exchange for the union’s continuing the “no-strike” pledge during World War II, GM conceded the COLA clause in exchange for the right for management to remain in exclusive control of operations.

In 1962, after a whole decade of endless advocacy and activism, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) won government employees in the state of Wisconsin the right to collective bargaining. Prior to this ruling, no other state in the country recognized the right to collective bargaining for public workers. A few months later, federal employees received limited collective bargaining rights for the first time ever when President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988. 

Three years before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized sexual harassment in 1980; members of District 65 UAW in the clerical bargaining unit at Barnard College negotiated a no sexual harassment clause in their 1977 contract. This was the first time language protecting workers from sexual harassment appeared in a union contract. (One of the authors of this essay led the negotiations.) From that small beginning the issue went national as the UAW won language with Ford and Chrysler in 1979. With Ford, UAW Local 235 won specific contract language stating, “Both the union and management will not tolerate sexual harassment by management.” Meanwhile, a women’s committee ensured grievances on the issue were investigated appropriately. 

In 1982, UAW District 65 successfully won progressive language around domestic partner rights in their contract with the Village Voice. The contract used the term, “spouse equivalent” and protected lesbian and gay people not legally permitted to marry as well as heterosexual couples who for a variety of reasons choose not to marry. In lieu of any legal precedent at the federal level and ongoing conflict and contestation at the state and local levels, a domestic partner clause won in a labor contract remains the most realistic way to 1) protect against economic discrimination based on sexual orientation and 2) provide health care to our domestic partners, dependents, and loved ones.