In this episode, I sat down with Associate Professor at Loyola University Chicago Peter Norlander to discuss what exactly happens during union negotiations and why the first contract proposed during the Deere strike was rejected by 90% of UAW John Deere workers.


Ben Thorpe: Who is traditionally involved in labor negotiations? Are there boards that they elect or teams that speak with each other?

Peter Norlander: Great question. So, the two sides, basically, you have your management and union each have a different set of actors in there. So companies with labor contracts will have a vice president of labor relations often who is keeping track of the one or many union contracts when they're expiring and what they want to do for negotiations. They probably are interacting closely with the CEO whenever those contracts are expiring, because the CEO ultimately will sign off. There's no way to get an agreement without the buy-in of the top leadership of management side and management is all under the control of the CEO. The board, you know, maybe the board will be involved, but probably not.

If it's a smaller contract, it may just be the VP of labor relations. And they'll just kind of keep the CFO and CEO in the loop. There are some companies that have dozens of union contracts, right. And, you know, a union can be as  small as a handful of employees. So not every union contract is going to be high stakes, but on the union side, in larger unions, well, first of all, the majority of the workers will need to sign off on an agreement. And that's typically what they have in their internal constitution as an organization is a right for workers to ratify any proposed contract. So that's where as a democratic organization, you never know how the vote is going to go. And we saw that in the Deere strike where a few times the union had negotiated something and brought it back to the workers and they said no.

And that means that the workers' representatives, the union must be in close touch with the union members themselves to effectively represent their interests. Now it depends again on the size of the union, but, and the specifics going on, but the union will often have a bargaining committee that is elected or chosen or selected by the elected president.

And in contract negotiations, that committee, depending upon how complex things are, may either break up into subgroups that look at specific issues, such as overtime or training or, you know, wages and benefits, or even if it's kind of a group that is not as complex, they can all handle everything, you know.

But then the traditional image is a room, a boardroom, people on one side, management, people on the other side, union, get together and have at least an initial kickoff meeting. And then they start working either in subgroups or they continue to convene. With zoom and the pandemic, I think that those meetings have been taking place just virtually. And that's another wrinkle in this.

So that's the big picture about who's involved, anything more specific on that? I think it gets more complicated in the Deere situation and in large union organizations, because you have internal union politics and you have differences between locals and the national union and ultimately, the president of the national union may be calling a lot of shots or may have a lot of power to call shots. But then if there's differences of opinion between the locals and the national, then you see a situation like Deere, where they negotiate something and they think that it's a good deal for the workers. And then the workers say, "No, that's not what we wanted."

Thorpe: In your experience, is it common for a leadership team at a large union to agree to a deal that is then — the first vote was 90% "no." Is that common  or is that not common at all?

Norlander: No, that's not common at all. And I think that illustrates that the union had not been in close touch with the workers who were affected by the contract. And that's, it's actually interesting right now in Illinois and other states where public sector unions, well, it's actually across the country right now since, public sector unions must — they cannot collect dues without having members and no member can be forced to pay dues. That's since the Supreme Court decision, in the case coming out of Illinois. And the effect that's had on public sector unions is to make the public sector unions very closely in touch with their members.

And in the public sector, also in Illinois, the previous governor and legislature had put in some requirements that they have to get 70% or a super majority in order to go on strike. And so you see things like the Chicago teachers union getting 90% of their teacher members to say that they're going to go on strike, because they're very much in regular close contact with their membership, they're in touch with what their demands are.

But in this case, you had a union national that was not very closely in touch with what the local workers were seeing. And I think part of that is the historic history here and the blindness, perhaps, in Detroit to the farm equipment and then, you know, slightly different industry and affected workers.