NTEU Chapter 296
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  • Behind the Scenes: How Your Contract is Negotiated
    Jul 11, 2021

    Behind the Scenes: How Your Contract is Negotiated

    As a union member, you are covered by and protected by your NTEU contract. It is the document that details many of your important workplace programs, holds management accountable and ensures that all employees are treated fairly. There is a reason we say that the contract is the most important document in your working life. Here’s a brief look at how a contract comes about and some of the terms and concepts that surround it.

    Let’s set the stage. The idea that employees band together and, through their union, sit down with management to negotiate a contract is known as collective bargaining. In the federal government, NTEU can bargain contracts because Congress established collective bargaining rights for most federal employees.

    It can take months, or longer, to complete bargaining but before NTEU and management sit down, the two sides have agreed on the process. That agreement is known as the ground rules, which usually list bargaining team members and a schedule for sessions. With contracts covering employees at 34 federal agencies, NTEU has an active bargaining schedule and there are generally negotiations happening at several agencies at any given time. NTEU may also be engaged in midterm bargaining if the union or management decides to open certain articles while the contract is in effect. This can be a good opportunity for NTEU to address new workplace issues or improve upon certain articles without having to wait for the contract to expire.

    Who is covered by the contract? The contract, also known as the term bargaining agreement or collective bargaining agreement, covers all employees in the bargaining unit. At your workplace, that means employees in non-supervisory roles (with some exceptions). In union-speak, members of the bargaining unit are known as BU employees; while those outside of the unit are NBU employees — non-bargaining unit.

    You and all the BU employees in your agency who are represented by NTEU (some agencies have more than one union representing employees) are represented at the bargaining table by the NTEU bargaining team. That team is composed of NTEU chapter leaders who bring actual workplace experience to the process. They understand how work gets done, what employees need to be successful and can explain why the union is seeking certain proposals and why some management proposals simply won’t work. They are assisted by experienced NTEU staff negotiators.

    When negotiations begin, there is an expectation that both sides approach the discussions in good faith. Good faith bargaining simply means that everyone around the table is willing to openly listen to and consider the proposals and talk through them in a sincere effort to reach an agreement.

    Of course, that doesn’t always happen. NTEU has seen plenty of instances where the management team engages in bad faith bargaining. Some actual examples include: refusing to meet face-to-face with the NTEU team, dismissing out-of-hand the union’s proposals, declaring bargaining over after a short period of time, not adhering to the ground rules and more.

    When agreement can’t be reached at the bargaining table, usually on just a handful of proposals, a bargaining impasse may be declared. Usually at that point a mediator gets involved to help the parties reach an agreement.  If that fails, the dispute moves to the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP). The members of the FSIP review the final proposals from each side for a contract article, may try again to help reach an agreement, and ultimately have the authority to impose contract language.

    Once a final contract is in place, there is usually a couple of extra steps before it goes into effect, including a ratification vote by union members and review by the agency head. The contract must be followed and the union may file a grievance to enforce it. Trained and experienced NTEU chapter officers and stewards are tasked with enforcing the contract and helping to resolve problems in your workplace.

    You have a role to play, too. It’s up to you to get educated about your workplace rights and alert your NTEU steward if you believe management is not following the contract. It is our collective action, as a union, that makes the workplace fair and equitable.


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