The Part of your CBA Nobody Understands

Maria Cowper-Smith
February 15, 2019

     Last year, we embarked on an interesting research project: We interviewed supervisors, managers, and workers across unions, industries, and cities. Importantly, we spoke with multiple people per union collective bargaining agreement (CBA), meaning we were able to compare answers at the same workplace. We reviewed each site’s CBAs and asked all participants a few simple questions. We hoped to learn:

  • How similar are CBAs across unions, geographies, and industries?
  • How different are participants’ understandings of the sameCBA?
  • What parts of the CBA were most prone to misinterpretation?

      These are fascinating and important questions. If managers and workers had different interpretations of certain parts of the CBA, we assumed those areas would be (1) very different from contract to contract, and (2) the workplace’s “hot-button” issues. We also assumed that groups would interpret the CBA similarly - that if there were disagreements about the CBA, managers would all hold a similar interpretation while workers would have a totally different - but uniform - interpretation.

So what did we learn?

      We found that supervisors, managers, and workers did disagree significantly on a select few CBA terms. And that these terms did cause more conflict than other CBA terms. But we found that almost nobody agreed on these terms. In fact, in one group interview among only managers, a shouting match broke out. There was no “unified interpretation,” as we’d assumed.

Interestingly, we also found that the most misunderstood CBA clause isn’t so different across CBAs, either.

So what is the most misunderstood CBA clause?

Not surprising: It’s how overtime is allocated. When union members take days off and when there are unplanned events, these open shifts have to be allocated according to the CBA. It’s crucial that the workplace agrees on the rules - after all, these open shifts often make up 6-10%+ of the shifts in your workplace [link]! And when allocated incorrectly, they cause unnecessary overtime, waste manager time, and frustrate workers.

Here are 14 different ways days off in union workplaces cost you

If your managers and workers don’t agree on the CBA, it costs your operations every single day. Unionized operations are already low-margin; the thought of wasting money due to avoidable misunderstandings should make any operations leader shudder. We’ve built a free resource that has helped union workplaces get on the same page about their complicated “Overtime” sections, in this blog post.

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