Definitions and Union Jargon
What is Collective Bargaining?
When a group of employees (i.e., a union) negotiate with their employer over pay, benefits and working conditions. The principle stems from the idea that as a group, employees have more strength or bargaining power if they collaborate than they do if they try to negotiate with their employer individually. Because of its basis in collaboration, collective bargaining is inherently a democratic process since a majority of employees select the subjects they bargain over and vote on whether they agree to a contract.
Collective Bargaining is actually a Human Right. As a Human Rights Watch press statement urging the United States to honor public employee bargaining rights, issued on February 26, 2011, explains:
The reason why collective bargaining is recognized as an international human right is that the compromises resulting from a process in which workers have an autonomous voice reflect principles of dignity, equality, and democracy consistent with human rights principles.
What is a union?
Employees coming together using a democratic process to engage in collective bargaining in order to negotiate with their employer over their wages, benefits, and working conditions.
It is not an outside third party. The union is made up of the employees, who democratically elect representatives to oversee their union’s affairs and negotiations with their employer. All union stewards within NFFE 1450 have a regular agency job but that volunteer to do union work and are elected by their colleagues.
What is the difference between associations, federations, and unions?
Associations are organizations of people with a common interest or purpose. A federation is an organization that is made by loosely joining together smaller organizations. People form associations, for a federation, for a number of reasons such as retirement issues, professional certification, and even employee welfare or work issues. A union is a type of association or federation, though with one major difference: members of a union have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining with an employer, and the employer is legally obligated to bargain with the union.
To illustrate, assume you and your colleagues want to form an employee association to advocate for professional development and improved benefits with your employer. You are free to create such an association; however, your employer is not legally required to talk to or negotiate with your organization. On the other hand, if you and your colleagues formed a union to address those same issues, your employer would legally be required to negotiate in good faith. Furthermore, forming a union is a democratic process that requires approval by a majority of your colleagues, while anyone, even an employer, can set up an association.
What can be confusing is that some unions and their local affiliates call themselves an association or federation even though their legal status is more specifically that of a union. NFFE started out as a federal employee professional association before they activated their legal right to engage in collective bargaining with employers in order to become a union. Other local unions often use the word “association” or “federation” in their title as a simple a matter of preference.
What is a Local?
An affiliate of the larger union organization that represents a particular bargaining unit of employees in their dealings with their employer. NFFE Locals have autonomy over their own affairs, such as dues, officer elections, and bargaining, and also work with the larger NFFE National organization through their ability to elect the NFFE National Executive Council and to vote on major changes to our governing documents.
Some of our Locals are large and have multiple bargaining units with different employers, while others only have one bargaining unit under one employer. HUD has three NFFE locals and you can locate their information by clicking here within the HUD network.
What is a bargaining unit?
A group of employees with a community of interest (similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.) that have union representation for the purpose of collective bargaining. The NFFE 1450 bargaining unit includes HUD employees in California, Arizona & Nevada and the SWONAP division within Albuquerque (note: we do not cover Enforcement Center employees in Los Angeles).
What is the benefit of a union?
Chiefly, the greatest benefits are having a (1) democratic say and (2) voice in the workplace.
Unless you have a collective bargaining relationship, your employer dictates your wages, benefits, and working conditions, and your employer can change them unilaterally without notice. By joining with your colleagues and forming a union, you gain legal status to make a difference within your work environment and to bargain a contract that governs your working conditions.
What is a union contract/collective bargaining agreement?
Also called a contract or a union contract, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) or Labor Management Agreement (LMA) is a legally binding contract between the employees (union) and the employer, arrived at through negotiations between the parties, which lays out the rights and duties of each party. This is similar to an employment contract a CEO has with a company, but it applies to all employees within the bargaining unit. This is the main reason employees form unions — so that their wages, benefits and working conditions cannot be changed unilaterally by management.
This is the main reason employees form unions — so that their wages, benefits and working conditions cannot be changed unilaterally by management.
What goes into the union contract?
Depending on the employees’ interests and negotiations with their employer, a contract can include such provisions as improved benefits and wages, whistleblower protections, employee flexibilities, telework, training and promotion opportunities, fair performance rating system, and improved safety and environmental standards.
Who negotiates the union contract?
The employer and the union choose their own negotiating teams who have the authority to negotiate the contract, subject to final approval.
The employer’s team is usually comprised of lawyers, local management, and upper management officials.
The union team usually consists of volunteers (your colleagues) elected by their fellow employees to a negotiation team, but they can also include expert or experienced negotiators and/or lawyers that are decided upon and paid for by the union (from member dues). Once a contract has been negotiated, the union members votes on whether to approve the contract. Non-members do not vote on approval of the new contract.
Can a union develop a partnership with an employer?
Yes, though the existence of such a working partnership largely depends on the wishes of the employer to develop such a relationship with its employees. Most employees, including those who have a union, prefer to partner with their employer to work out their issues collaboratively. Unfortunately, the main reason employees end up forming a union is that some employers do not see value in such partnerships or in listening to the concerns and issues of their employees.
The good news is that by forming a union, you can hold your employer accountable, ensuring that you and your colleagues have a voice in fighting unilateral changes to your pay, benefits, employer policies, and other working conditions.
NFFE 1450 in collaboration with NFFE 1804 (Detroit) and NFFE 259 (Memphis) have a HUD-NFFE Labor Management Forum.
More information is available on the HUD network at: http://hudatwork.hud.gov/HUD/haw/Labormgtforum
The partnership offers a wide selection of class titles in technical and professional skill areas. In 2013, the partnership expects to deliver more than 500 events, totaling over 115,000 student hours. In SPEEA’s contract with Boeing, they negotiated that Boeing will contribute a minimum of $24.8 million towards the partnership to benefit SPEEA members.
What is a strike?
A work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees within the unit to work. It is a negotiating tool of last resort and used by employees in the private sector and in some of the public sectors, where allowed. Strikes are illegal in most of the public sector and in the federal sector. Over 98% of union contract negotiations are settled without a strike in the private sector since the employer often does not want a strike any more than the employees do. In IFPTE, strikes can only be authorized by a majority of the bargaining unit through a vote of the employees involved.
Alternatives to strikes include mediation and arbitration. Mediation is a process in which two parties rely on a professional mediator to assist them in finding solutions to a dispute. In mediation, both parties still have to agree to the solution. Arbitration is when both parties agree to refer the dispute to a third party, the arbitrator, to make a decision. Both parties agree to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision (also called an “award”). Arbitration is also a tool widely used for enforcement of collective bargaining agreements in place of going to court for enforcement of a contract.
The Federal Labor Relations Act of 1978 (FLRA) is a federal law which establishes collective bargaining rights for most employees of the federal government in the United States.
The FLRA was adopted after President Jimmy Carter pushed for legislation to regularize federal labor relations.
In passing the act, Congress declared that it wished to encourage collective bargaining between federal employees and their employers. Congress declared that collective bargaining is “in the public interest” because, among other things, it “contributes to the effective conduct of public business” and “facilitates and encourages the amicable settlements of disputes between employees and their employers involving conditions of employment.”
With only some major exceptions, it is patterned on the National Labor Relations Act.
One important difference between the two laws is the scope of the authorized collective bargaining process. While private-sector employees are entitled to collectively bargain through a representative of their choosing with respect to wages, hours, benefits, and other working conditions, federal employees can collectively bargain with respect to personnel practices only. Thus, federal employees may not negotiate the following working conditions through their exclusive bargaining representative: Wages, Hours, Employee benefits, and Classifications of Jobs.
Another important difference is although the NLRA allows private sector employees to engage in “concerted action,” like workplace strikes, the Statute does not grant this right to federal employees. In fact, the Statute specifically excludes from the definition of “employee” those persons who engage in a workplace strike. It specifies that it is an unfair labor practice for labor unions to call or participate in a strike or a work stoppage that interferes with the operation of a federal agency.
A third important difference is under the FLRA it is an unfair labor practice for labor unions to call or participate in picketing that interferes with the operation of a federal agency, employee picketing under the Statute may consist of “informational” picketing only. Under the NLRA, appropriate picketing is a right guaranteed to private sector employees. Picketing allowed by the Statute must not disrupt the operations of the agency. It also may not occur while the employees are on duty.
What are union dues? What are they used for?
Dues are contributed by union members to the organization and are generally the only source of funds for a union. These funds are used to support the unions’ expenses such as legal advice during negotiations, ensure the employer follows the collective bargaining agreement, officer/steward training, assisting others in organizing a union, and arbitrations.
Each NFFE Local sets its own dues rate and structure based on its size and needs, taking into account what is required by the NFFE Constitution. Each NFFE Local Union determines how its dues are used. NFFE 1450 only uses dues for representational purposes.
What about unions and politics?
Unions engage in politics in order to advocate for particular issues or positions that benefit their members, just as corporations and special interest groups engage in politics. Unions often take political positions on issues that will affect their membership or that will affect working people as a whole. Unlike corporations or many special interest groups, unions are democracies, which means that union leaders are accountable to their members.
NFFE advocates on issues of interest to our members, but does not engage in ideological politics, and does not make contributions to political candidates using union dues.
To learn more about the issues we are currently engaged in please visit our Legislative Action Center.
NFFE Locals determine for themselves whether they wish to engage in politics or to remain neutral.