It may be tempting for HR professionals to try to negotiate and draft key aspects of union collective-bargaining agreements. After all, you negotiate all sorts of other important contracts, including health insurance plans and EEOC discrimination complaint settlements.
But there are good reasons to leave collective bargaining to labor relations and legal experts. First, the union will bring in the heavy hitters from national headquarters. Second, without an attorney’s keen eye for the potential long-term consequences of short-term problems, you may find yourself with an unworkable agreement.
Consider the following case in which a smart labor lawyer years ago inserted contract language that protected the employer from possible trouble far into the future.
Recent case: Louis Miller, age 80, and Richard Royals, age 75, worked for decades as flight engineers for American Airlines. They each made well over $100,000 per year.
Back in 1964, the union and the airline realized that technology eventually would render flight engineers obsolete as pilots began handling most of the engineering work. Therefore they negotiated job protections for the engineers. The collective bargaining agreement said that as flight engineers became unnecessary, they could transfer to other positions with the airline without losing any salary. The agreement included the clause that an engineer would enjoy salary protection “until his normal flight engineer retirement date.”
It wasn’t until 2002 that Miller and Royals lost their flight engineer positions when American Airlines mothballed the last three planes in the fleet that used them. The airline offered both men jobs in the company’s publication division—with pay $100,000 less than they had been earning.
They sued, alleging age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). They relied on the union contract to make their case.
But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said the contract language applied to how an arbitrator would weigh a pay dispute, not how the court would. And an arbitrator had already concluded that any pay guarantee ended when the two employees turned 65—a flight engineer’s normal retirement date. The court refused to entertain the notion that the 1964 language violated the ADEA. (Miller & Royals v. American Airlines, No. 07-1518, 7th Cir., 2008)
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