Reviewing a Labor Agreement: Ten Tips on What to Throw Out, Fix or Include (Part Two)

As Agencies prepare to bargain a new labor agreement, careful attention should be paid to the expired or expiring contract.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the article. Here is Part One.

Tip #6: Get the Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Word Usage Right

I read a lot of contracts. I am amazed at the number of language construction problems there are. Often, running a spelling and grammar checker over the document isn’t enough.  Remember that your labor agreement is a legal document entered into by a Federal government agency.  While labor agreements should be kept free of “whereases”, “heretofors” and other legal gibberish, they should be written in proper English and be understandable to any reader.  My advice to start is that you capture an English major in the Agency with little or no labor relations experience and ask that person to read and critique the agreement.  MSWord© has a “Track Changes” on the Tools Menu.  Ask your English major to strikeout offending language and correct it as best he or she can.

In addition, incorporate a definitions and abbreviations section to the agreement and make sure it’s clear that any abbreviation means only one thing throughout.

Other matters should be consistent as well.  Date forms (July 1, 2008, 7/1/08, 07/01/08, 1 July 2008), day types (calendar days or workdays) and other such usage should be consistent throughout.

One of my favorite issues is what to call the Agency.  Arbitrators deal with “Employers” all the time.  It is important that the agreement doesn’t confuse a Federal employer with a company in the mind of an arbitrator for a lot of very good reasons.  These include the relative absence of laws, rules and regulations governing companies that drive all of what Federal Agencies do.  My advice is never to use “management”, “the employer” but simply to use “the Agency”.  If you need a more specific identifier, use “the Region”, “the Office” etc., but don’t forget to say you’re going to do this in the “Definitions” article or section in the beginning.

Tip #7: Objectify the Other Guy, Subjectify Yourself

Look out for extensive procedural requirements placed on supervisors or others in getting things done.  I once read a contract in which there was a complicated pre-PIP process (no alliteration intended) that required extensive counseling, and if played out took months to complete.  PIPs are used to accomplish performance improvement through counseling and other means.  I couldn’t figure out what advantage existed for the Agency in doing such a redundant, convoluted process.

Contract procedures should be clear and simple but if anybody has to jump through hoops, it should be the union.  After all, they’re the ones who want time, copies, computer access, etc., etc.

Tip #8: Recognize Ambiguous Language, Particularly When NOT in Your Interest

Is your contract chock full of reasonables, possibles, necessaries, regulars, normals, feasibles and the like?  If you avoided them totally you’d end with a contract to put an Encyclopedia to shame for the sheer number of trees killed.  The critical point is that ambiguity that doesn’t benefit you, likely benefits the other guy and is worth targeting for removal.

Tip #9: If the Contract is Not Ordered Logically, Restructure it.

The largest numbers of people who must deal with the contract are employees, supervisors and union stewards.  Despite this, contracts often have complex articles of little interest to these folks in the beginning.  Push union and management rights, official time, dues withholding to the back and concentrate in the beginning on articles that the most people have the most interest in such as hours of work, flexitime, leave and such.  Sit down with the old contract and ask who each article is most used by.  Anything that only a union official or a labor relations specialist will ever discuss should be dead last.

Tip #10: Ten Questions to Ask about a Particular Provision

Every section of an expiring is worth subjecting to the following questions:

  1. What specific rights and duties are created?
  2. How are these rights and duties triggered?
  3. Is context important?  How?  Why?
  4. Who is made the responsible party?
  5. Is management’s line of authority affected?
  6. What is the economic cost, if any, of the proposal?
  7. What is the impact on the organization?
  8. How would the provision affect work-planning?
  9. How would it affect workflow?
  10. Is further information needed to analyze/prepare?

So now you know all my secrets, huh? I sincerely hope not. I have many more analytical questions and over 40 provisions any management can put on the table at negotiations to get leverage. But they are only available if you come to Advanced Bargaining Training: Focus on Contract Negotiations or hire my company to review your expired, expiring or upcoming first agreement or to review union proposals. Interested? Email me below

As always, any opinion expressed is mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.