A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a legally binding document that outlines the terms of employment for the covered union members. It’s just what it sounds like - an agreement that is bargained collectively. More commonly known as a union contract, winning and enforcing CBAs is a core function of today’s unions.

What’s in a typical contract?

Contract language can vary significantly across industries and workforces but we can still expect to see some common issues addressed in collective bargaining. Both the employer and the union have to bargain over mandatory subjects that directly impact terms and conditions of employment (like) wages, hours, and working conditions. Permissive subjects include unit scope/recognition clauses and questions related to internal union operations; it is not an unfair labor practice for either to refuse. Parties can't bargain over illegal subjects, even if both sides were to agree a contract can't supercede existing law (like giving the employer the right to terminate an employee for discrimination) (National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

That’s the legal framework for contract language...but none of it is guaranteed. Members within the unit have to come to consensus about their priorities and use leverage and organizing to win that language in the contract. And even when management and union bargain in good faith it may require significant convincing (through pressure and mobilization) to win what people want from the employer.

In 2018, over 100 full and part-time employees of Have a Heart (a medical cannabis operation with five retail locations in Washington state) ratified their first union contract as members of United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 21 (UFCW). Cannabis was only legalized in Washington in 2012, yet the UFCW contract features many of the same key elements we’ve seen in union contracts for decades. We’ll use their contract as an example of how workers are continuing to organize and negotiate contracts that are meaningful in today’s workplace.

Workers celebrate at the signing ceremony for the first union contract between UFCW Local 21 and Have a Heart. Image via UFCW

Who does the contract cover?

Union contracts cover the members of the bargaining unit - aptly named, it’s the group of employees who bargain as one one unit. Management is largely responsible for enforcing the contract but the terms cover only unit members (meaning: you can’t bargain CEO pay in a union contract).

The recognition clause (usually the first section of a union contract) establishes who is in the bargaining unit; in this case “an appropriate unit” of full-time and part-time employees of Have a Heart CC, including newly created positions in the future. In other CBAs, the recognition language might include a phrase like “similarly situated” or “substantially similar” employees to ensure that future work is part of the bargaining unit.

Many union contracts, like this one, establish guidelines to ensure that new hires are able to meet with a union representative (typically a shop steward).

Compensation & pay minimums

Workers decide their priorities and in a workplace where people have been chronically underpaid, a first contract might include significant economic gains. In other workplaces, pay is not the number issue. In 2021, the employees at tech company Glitch settled their first union contract and prioritized job security and representation in the workplace rather than wages. The Have a Heart contract addresses compensation in several ways, including hourly minimums, regular pay increases, and a system to protect bonuses and tips. Ultimately, workers decide what to prioritize.

The UFCW contract establishes hourly pay rates for each job classification (Article 16), as well as anniversary and annual increases. An anniversary increase applies one year after an individual passes probation. An annual increase applies to all employees on a certain date, regardless of their date of hire.

In this contract, a merchandiser who hits their 3rd year anniversary on Dec 31, 2020 will get the annual increase and move to $18.15/hour on Jan 1, 2021. A merchandiser who just passed their probation on Dec 31, 2020 will get the annual increase to $15.90 on Jan 1. The annual increases to the hourly minimums means that more recently hired workers are hired into a fair rate and will benefit from the union-negotiated increases.

More money stuff: bonuses, tips, and merit pay

Bonuses or other one-time payments are typically determined by metrics defined by the employer (revenue, performance, etc). This contract establishes minimum weekly bonus rates between $50-$250/week for different job positions (Article 21, Section 1). Bonuses are based in part on metrics set by Have a Heart (such as revenue); while bonuses are not guaranteed every week, they set a basic minimum and clarify the terms to qualify  (rather than it being left to the whim of individual stores or managers). Similarly, tips are not guaranteed but they are addressed in the contract, including language that tips are equitably distributed amongst workers and not counted towards regular hourly wages (Article 22)

Though some union contracts avoid merit pay in order to limit management discretion, the Have a Heart contract allows for individual merit increases. Everyone in the unit must make the minimum hourly rate for their job title but management can choose to pay individuals over and above those rates (Article 16, Section 2). This can be a helpful example to point to when you hear that union contracts eliminate merit pay. Some do, some don’t!

Concerns about limiting or reducing pay can be common during initial organizing drives, especially when part of an anti-union campaign. Long-time employees earning more than the union negotiated minimums may fear pay cuts even though minimums are just that - minimums, not maximums. The Have a Heart CBA explicitly protects against that: “[n]o employee shall suffer a reduction in pay as a result of signing the agreement” (Article 16, Section 3).

Job duties have to be somewhat rational for pay scales to be meaningful (someone who is paid at the merchandiser title rate should be performing those job duties, not those of a lead merchandiser). The Have a Heart contract states that employees “asked to work outside their classification shall be paid the rate of the job performed or the employees regular rate, whichever is higher, for the employee’s entire shift” (Article 16, Section 3).

Benefits: healthcare, retirement & more

Employer-provided benefits (sometimes called “corporate perks,” sometimes called “basic rights”) can include everything from health insurance to paid time off to gym reimbursements. Contracts may lock in existing benefits (which means they can’t just get taken away tomorrow!) and can also be an opportunity to significantly expand and improve benefits.

Some union contracts guarantee that the employer will continue providing health insurance and may even stipulate that the company has to absorb rising costs. The Have a Heart contract brings workers into an existing health plan managed by UFCW, (Article 17, pages 24-25) with a guarantee that Have a Heart covers 50% of the monthly premium for each employee.

Like healthcare, retirement benefits can be provided by a specific employer (like a 401k) or made in the form of contributions to a union-managed pension (yes, they still exist!). Have a Heart will contribute $0.50/hour for all employees who work on average 30 hours a week (Article 18, Section 1) into the UFCW and Employers Industry Pension Fund. The key part here is that the employer pays into the pension plan on behalf of each individual worker.

Union-managed healthcare and retirement plans are portable - if a worker leaves Have a Heart for another UFCW job they can stay on the same health plan and continue building their pension accrual. The continued existence of pension and healthcare shows the long-term benefits of broad unionization and continued organizing - workers are able to retire with benefits as new workers join or form unions.

Protecting worker time: paid time off & fair scheduling

Paid time off (called “earned time off” in this contract) provisions ensure fair minimums for all employees. In this contract, an employee with one year at the job will have a paid week off per year once they finish probation and that allocation more than doubles upon hitting two year anniversary (Article 4, Section 1-2).

Unlike many retail jobs, union members at Have a Heart have protected gender-universal paid parental leave, for either birth or adoption:

It’s important to get language and protected benefits in a contract, not only materially benefit people’s lives, but as part of a larger cultural change. When a group of people demand fair treatment (like paid parental leave), it becomes more possible for other workers to do the same.

Time is a resource that workers fight to defend. The Have a Heart contract guarantees meal breaks, paid breaks, a 40-hour work week for full-time employees, and one week’s notice of scheduling changes (“compassionate scheduling”) (Article 13, Sections 1-5). Unions originally fought for the 40-hour work week and are still doing it today!

Workplace safety & culture

The Have a Heart contract calls for basic safety protocols like maintaining a “fully equipped first aid kit” and establishing a Safety Committee (Article 24, Section 1). Contract language around safety sets the expectation that it’s a priority and the ongoing responsibility of both union and management. The contract ensures that serving on the Safety Committee it is part of an employee’s regular duties- “[s]afety committee responsibilities shall be performed on company time at the committee member’s regular rate of pay” (Article 24, Section 2). Forming a committee (rather than narrowly defining “safety”) means that workers can define workplace safety issues as they arise (anything from a security problem to air ventilation concerns).

It is becoming increasingly common for contracts to explicitly address issues like equity and discrimination. In this contract, the employer agrees to implement UFCW’s Diversity Plan for Equitable Opportunities (Appendix A). It may seem redundant to mention that both employer and union will adhere to existing laws but just including this language means that it was discussed at the bargaining table and that workers have an additional point of leverage if they believe they are facing discrimination.

Job security & due process

Just cause ends “at-will employment” and puts the burden of proof on the employer to meet a “reasonable standard” for all employee discipline, including if someone has been fired. Just cause contract language is intentionally vague. The standard has been developed through precedent and decades of union bargaining and arbitrations; another UFCW local maintains a checklist to determine if the just cause standard has been met, and there are numerous resources including from Labor Notes.

An employer can terminate an employee for gross misconduct without applying the just cause process. A union representative can contest the decision as to whether or not the gross misconduct standard was legitimately applied (common examples include hitting a co-worker or stealing from the company).

Being fired is different from being laid off, though they can feel the same. A lay-off is the elimination of a position altogether and is done for business or economic reasons (for example, if Have a Heart had to close a store or department). In this contract, layoffs and severance are decided by seniority (Article 14).

How are contracts enforced?

Union stewards play a crucial role in contract enforcement, as this this contract memorializes (Article 9, Section 6). In addition to the work of stewards, most contracts establish at least one committee, a Labor Management Committee (Article 9, Section 7. Between negotiations, LMC meetings are used to discuss questions or issues related to implementation of the contract, or general workplace issues.

Contracts are also enforced through the grievance and arbitration clause. The grievance and arbitration language lays out a process to raise and resolve disagreements in contract interpretation, including violations of the contract. An employee is encouraged to try to address the matter directly with their supervisor (Article 8, Section 1a) and then involve a show steward or paid union staffer (Article 8, Section 1b). A union rep may also recommend bringing issues to the Labor Management Committee to try to resolve before escalating to a mediator or arbitrator (Section 1e). The process tends to look pretty similar across union contracts and industries, though there are specific timeframes to be mindful of in each contract (in this case, either party has 30 days to escalate to arbitration) (Article 8, Section 1e).

The key takeaway here is that contract violations - by either the union or the employer - are resolved through the grievance and arbitration process. An arbitrator is a third party (often from the American Arbitration Association) who makes a legally binding decision. Grievances are not handled in a lawsuit, and violations don’t nullify the entire contract.

How long is a contract in place?

The Have a Heart contract went into effect on July 1, 2018 after a member ratification vote and will expire on July 1, 2021 (Article 27). Three-year deals are pretty common across union contracts but, like everything in the contract, duration must be agreed upon in negotiations. The Glitch contract is an 11-month contract. Shorter contracts (one or two years) have been favored by the unions in the past to limit the no-strike clause and keep momentum on the shop floor while a longer contract (five years) may be beneficial in locking in benefits like health care for as long as possible.

Once a contract expires, the status quo stays in place while the parties continue negotiating. The no strike/no lockout clause, however, expires with the contract and is why you’ll most often see union members on strike during stalled contract negotiations.

Chicago Teachers Union on strike during contract negotiations in 2012. Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee via Truthout

Are you ready for your collective bargaining agreement?

In a nonunion workplace, the employer can make any change to benefits that they want, including cutting benefits and reneging on promised raises. The specifics of contract language and priorities vary across unions and industries but they all have something important in common - they are legally binding agreements that set minimum standards for terms and conditions of employment. Contract language is super important...but it’s only a piece of paper (or a PDF) if it’s not being enforced. Workers win and defend strong contract language the same way that they win union elections - through organizing and solidarity! Start organizing today.