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Association of Flight Attendants-CWA United Master Executive Council

What is a Contract?

Contract Language

A "Contract" is an agreement between two or more entities which creates a legal obligation to do or not do a particular thing or things. Our Contract, also known as a “collective bargaining agreement, is a legally enforceable Contract pursuant to the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”). A Contract is in some ways a "living document," which may be amended or updated; in our case, only in accordance with the procedures of the RLA.

Don’t be put off by “legalese” in our Contract. Certain language or clauses may appear perplexing to a layperson. "Layman's terms," or more commonly used language is often not appropriate in a Contract as a legal document. Words or phrases in it must have clear, precise and standardized meaning. As a result, Contracts must be drafted in terminology that will keep it less subject to disputes over "interpretation." Needless to say, the language is very different from our traditional, or everyday vocabulary.

Collective Bargaining and Me

Collective bargaining is the process whereby workers organize collectively in a Union and bargain with employers regarding issues in the workplace. It is the coming together of workers to negotiate the terms of their employment as a group, taking advantage of their collective strength in numbers. This is important because, by nature of the corporate environment and economic power, employers often have an advantage over employees, particularly individual employees.

Many workers go to work for a company where a Union Contract is already in place, previously negotiated for them by the workers and their Union at that company. With a collective bargaining agreement key factors for desired pay, work rules and benefits need not be individually negotiated by each worker. Management’s leverage is far greater than that of an individual worker. Absent a Union, management can use that leverage to pit one worker against another and to force pay and benefits to the lowest common denominator. Workers can level that playing field by bargaining collectively through a Union with the added leverage of the right to strike.

A collective bargaining agreement is a labor Contract between an employer and one or more Unions. Collective bargaining consists of the process of negotiation between workers and their Union representatives on one side and employers represented by management on the other. In some industries and in some countries employers are represented by an employers' organization. Collective bargaining negotiations encompass all of the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment.

Collective bargaining sets detail items such as wages and fringe benefits, scheduling, vacation time, holidays, grievance procedures, disciplinary procedures, arbitration, health and safety, nondiscrimination clauses, length of Contract, seniority, and Union security. The parties often refer to the Contract that results from these negotiations as a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Section 6 under Title II of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) lays out the legal rules and procedures for collective bargaining for workers in the airline and railroad industries. Under the RLA collective bargaining agreements never expire, they become amendable at the date specified in the duration section of the Contract. The term “amendable” simply means that at the date specified, the Union and the company can serve notice to each other of their intent to negotiate changes (“amendments”) to the terms. The current terms of the Contract – which are known as the “status quo” – stay in place during the negotiations process. Rather than having the right to strike immediately upon a Contract expirations date, workers under the RLA have the right to strike only if the RLA procedures for mediation and a cooling-off period are exhausted without reaching agreement on a new Contract.

Discipline: Union vs. Non-Union

Collective bargaining agreements often include a clause, express or implied, limiting the right of the employer to discipline workers by firing, suspension, notation on work records, and other forms of reprimand. Labor Unions traditionally include limitations on management’s right to discipline workers in this clause by requiring that "just cause" be shown for the discipline. This is an enormous benefit over the status of non-Union workers because, absent a Union Contract, workers in most states are considered “at will” employees. This means that for legal purposes management can fire or discipline non-Union workers “at will.” Unions also negotiate procedural safeguards such as notice, hearings, and review in order to provide defense for the member. These safeguards are often written in conjunction with the grievance procedure. The goal of the these provisions is to ensure that the Flight Attendants’ rights are protected, all facts are heard and that the punishment is not arbitrary or unfair. On the other hand, non-Union employees face discipline or termination without the protection of a Contract.

Because Contracts cannot foresee every problem that will arise at work, most collective bargaining agreements include the establishment of a mutually agreeable procedure to settle differences in Contract interpretation with a company. All collective bargaining agreements under the RLA, including our own Contract, must have a procedure for review by a panel called the system board of adjustment. This panel, sitting with a neutral, independent arbitrator, is empowered by law and Contract to issue final and binding decisions on disputes over discipline and over Contractual interpretations.

What's the RLA and NMB? Who's Covered By It?

The Railway Labor Act of 1926 was the first comprehensive piece of labor legislation passed by Congress. Rather than applying to U.S. industry as a whole, the RLA applied to what was then the most critical piece of transportation infrastructure in the country – the railroads. The RLA was later amended in 1936 to cover the emerging airline industry. The National Mediation Board (NMB) is the federal agency created by the RLA to administer certain functions under the Act. The Board is primarily responsible for conducting Union representational elections, and supervising the mediation of Contract negotiations. Workers in other industries – from grocery stores to factories and other businesses – are governed by a different law called the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

The rules under the NLRA are different from what we are accustomed to in the airline industry under the RLA. Collective bargaining agreements under the NLRA expire on a specific date, triggering the right to strike. However, certain weapons like the intermittent strikes we have developed as part of CHAOS™ are legal under the RLA even though they would be illegal for workers covered by the NLRA. This gives airline and railroad workers unique leverage that workers in other industry do not have at the bargaining table.

Representation from Within

A “bargaining unit” in labor relations is an organization, or group of employees with a clear and identifiable community of interests who are (under U.S. law) represented by a single labor Union in collective bargaining and other dealings with management. Examples of the membership would be Flight Attendants, pilots, mechanics and related, ramp, customer service agents, clerical and administrative employees, etc.

The trade Union, through its leaders, who are elected workers from within the unit, bargains with the employer on behalf of Union members ("rank and file" members) and negotiates labor Contracts with employers. Other crucial representational functions include the grievance procedures, rules discipline, firing and assignment of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. The agreements negotiated by its Union leaders are binding on the rank–and-file membership and the employer.

Most Unions assert a right to mandate that only its members, and no others, may be permitted to work at certain jobs. This is commonly referred to as “recognition” or “scope” in the Contract. Furthermore, under U.S. law, the Union Contract is exclusive with regard to the employer. An employer, within the Contract, is not permitted to seek out the services of another labor Union or hire employee not represented by the Union.

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