Changing Key Language in a Collective Agreement

NegotiationOutdated collective agreement language that inhibits change was raised as a major problem by a number of administrators at the Future of Libraries symposium recently held in Vancouver.  

Several participants, however, mentioned that their library systems had managed to negotiate changes to major changes to their collective agreements.  The following is a case study based on a compilation of several instances where contractual language has been changed.  The common elements in these different cases are the ones that are stressed in this description.

For the purposes of this case study, the clause that that library system felt needed to change was the seniority clause.  The existing clause stated that seniority was the determining factor for filling vacancies, so long as internal applicants had the minimum qualifications.

Several key environmental elements convinced the library’s administration to try for contractual change.

  1. Administration had full support of the board. The union was not viewed as credible.
  2. A union executive member, in a newsletter, had recently made outlandish claims about the affects of implementing a particular technology. She claimed, in a newsletter, that many staff members would soon be put out of work. The administration had stated previously that any job loss would be handled by attrition. The administration’s statement proved accurate.  As a result, administration had more credibility with many union members than did the union executive.
  3. Membership in the union was becoming much younger.  Many new union members did not feel that seniority should be the key factor for promotion or for job change. Many of these new union members were also the ones most concerned about losing their jobs if the library’s budget was cut.
  4. Branch and department managers, who were not in the union, sometimes complained that the seniority clause was not providing them with the best possible staff.  The collective agreement gave managers the right to conduct performance reviews during the probation period and to return an employee to his/her former position if performance was not acceptable. Working with HR, two employees were given unsatisfactory performance evaluations during their probationary periods. They were returned to their former positions. In each instance, employees had first been given extensions and also given additional training. While grievances were filed and denied, neither grievance was taken to arbitration. The return of these two employees was embarrassing for the employees themselves and was disruptive; the returns caused chain-reactions that affected staff who had also shifted jobs.  Strong unionists were furious while many union members quietly applauded the moves; there had been grumblings from staff who had felt they were better qualified.

It's All About Seniority

It was in this workplace climate that the union and administration entered new contract negotiations. The union submitted a draft contract that renewed the existing seniority clause. Administration submitted a clause that stated seniority was one of several factors to be considered when jobs were filled.

The lawyer for administration was clear, in discussions with the administrative team, that listing several factors did not make them equal under case law.  An arbitrator might rule that seniority should have more weight when jobs that did not require professional responsibility were posted and less weight when professional positions were filled.

The big issue for the union membership was fear that another soon-to-be-implemented technology would eliminate jobs.  Administration offered, in return for the new seniority clause, a letter of understanding promising that no union member would lose a job as a result the implementation of this new technology.  The letter of understanding expired after the technology had been installed for a period of time. The letter of understanding excluded possible job losses as a result of municipal cuts to library funding.

While the union negotiating team did not like the language, they felt that they got some job guarantee, which was their most important mandate going into negotiations. The negotiated agreement was – with some reluctance (one union member quit their team) – submitted to a vote and easily ratified.

The net result has been that most (but not all) non-librarian positions have continued to be filled by the senior candidates.  Seniority is not a key factor when filling librarian positions.

This case is an example of a library’s management team correctly reading the workplace environment and seeking a change when it was most likely to be successful.

It is based on several actual negotiations.


About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.

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4 Responses to Changing Key Language in a Collective Agreement

  1. KITTY January 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    OMG………thank you so much Ken,
    this is just what I needed to hear.

  2. James January 17, 2014 at 2:21 am #

    Interesting timing – I just sat on an interview panel at a neighboring library, yesterday. Their employees used to request transfers to branches when openings came up and they were pretty much guaranteed. Not anymore. Now they must compete with the general public and most of them are finding that they aren’t making the cut. A pretty good wake up call.

  3. M.MacKinnon January 21, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Cannot read this blog with any degree of confidence when word choice arrors are made:

    effects, not affects as in Haycock’s statement “outlandish claims about the affects of implementing a particular technology”.

    However, that is the least of his problems

    • Ken Haycock January 21, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

      Yes, we all make mistakes from time to time. Good for you for perfection.
      However, might we focus on the big issues? Could you expand on the other problems you reference?