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Get legal help when negotiating union contract

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Drafting a collective-bargaining agreement isn’t a do-it-yourself project. You have to make sure that the language in the union contract does what you intend it to do. For that, you should consult an experienced labor-relations attorney.

Recent case: When the collective-bargaining agreement between PPG Industries and the International Chemical Workers Union expired close to the end of 2005, union members authorized a strike and walked out. When the dust had settled and they went back to work, the company refused to pay the workers their year-end bonus because of the strike.

The union took the case to arbitration, where the arbitrator examined the expired contract’s wording concerning bonuses. It said employees were eligible for a bonus if they had been actively employed for 1,040 hours or more during the plan year and were actively employed on the last workday of the plan year (or an approved leave of absence or layoff). The agreement made no mention of strikes.

The arbitrator sided with the workers, but the district court reversed. The union then appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court reinstated the arbitrator’s order, reasoning that because the workers were still “employed” while on strike and because the agreement was silent on strikes, they were entitled to the bonus despite the walkout. Plus, the court pointed out that the company itself had drafted the bonus section, so any ambiguity had to be resolved in favor of the workers. (PPG Industries v. International Chemical Workers Union, et al., No. 08-2180, 4th Cir., 2009)

Final note: Remember, when you become a union workplace, you’ll have to live with the union contract for quite some time. To make sure it’s the best deal you can get, call on an experienced attorney to help negotiate and draft the agreement.

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