Collective Bargaining in 1990: Search for Solutions Continues

By Cimini, Michael | Monthly Labor Review, January 1991 | Go to article overview

Collective Bargaining in 1990: Search for Solutions Continues


Cimini, Michael, Monthly Labor Review


Collective bargaining in 1990: search for solutions continues

The institution of collective bargaining was severely tested in 1990, as several indutries that have been buffeted in recent years by foreign competition, deregulation, technological changes, or intense interindustry or intraindustry competition, experienced significant bargaining activity. Several of these industries also were adversely affected by a sluggish economy, and some experienced significant job losses during the year. Bargaining talks in two of these industries required the intervention of the top echelon of the Federal Government: the President established an emergency board for the national railroad negotiations, and the Secretary of Labor appointed a supermediator (and a special commission) for the Pittston Coal Co.--United Mine Workers work stoppage.

Several other bargaining situations also outstretched the ability of negotiators to reach peaceful settlements without disruptions. In the Eastern Airlines--Machinists work stoppage, the Congress passed legislation establishing a special commission to investigate the labor dispute, but its effort was rejected by a presidential veto. In addition, two other contract talks led to protracted labor disputes--the baseball strike during the spring and the Greyhound bus strike for much of the year.

In two bargaining situations where negotiations were expected to be acrimonious, settlements were reached without a serious threat of a work stoppage. In the first, the United Parcel Service-Teamsters master contract negotiations, the rank-and-file broke with their union leadership and approved a tentative contract that the union leaders had recommended be rejected. In the second case, the United Automobile Workers contract talks with the "Big Three" automakers, the parties quickly and successfully resolved the thorny problems of job and income security in a way that may indicate the dawn of more mature and cooperative labor-management relationships in the industry.

Health care costs, as in past years, were the most contentious bargaining issue in 1990. In many negotiations, unions traded off higher wage increases to avoid health care benefit cuts or the shifting of health care insurance costs to their members. Other major bargaining issues were wages, job security, pensions, and safety and health matters. Although of increasing importance in the last few years, family issues, such as child care, parental care, and flexible work schedules, were not usually the major issues in dispute in 1990.

One indicator of the state of labor-management relations is the number of major work stoppages (strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 workers or more). After an upsurge in 1989, work stoppage activity dropped in 1990. By the end of October, there were 43 work stoppages that involved 195,000 workers and 6.1 million days of idleness (amounting to about 3 of every 10,000 available work days during the 10-month period). Comparable figures for the same period a year earlier were 45 stoppages, 441,000 workers, and 14.8 million days of idleness (6 out of every 10,000 available work days).

Another indicator of the relations between labor and management was the size of wage adjustments in major collective bargaining settlements reached in private industry during the first 9 months of the year. Wage rate adjustments averaged 3.3 percent annually over the life of the contracts, compared with 2.1 percent the last time the same parties settled, typically in 1987 or 1988. If the same pattern holds through the fourth quarter, 1990 would be the second consecutive year since 1981 (when the measure was introduced) in which specified over-the-term wage adjustments were larger in new contracts than in the contracts they replaced.

Other characteristics of labor-management relations in 1990 are less easily measured in statistical terms, but are evident in the following discussions of development in individual industries and firms. …

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