December 2011 Update
It’s not my job to gamble with your career. Few of you have heard me say these words. Those who have were the recipients of removals for which the grievances have been denied at step 1, step 2, and step 3, of the grievance-arbitration procedure. These people have usually spent 6 months, 9 months, or longer, in a non-pay status as the grievance protesting their removal has moved its way towards an arbitration hearing. Once an arbitration hearing has been scheduled it’s necessary to identify and assess the risks inherent in the process. The events which may happen in an arbitration hearing are unpredictable and I’ve personally seen some extraordinary things occur. Some have been to our benefit and some have been to our detriment. More importantly, these unpredictable occurrences have often shaped the outcome. If two things can be said with certainty about arbitration, they would be that the outcomes are unpredictable and that the results are final.
Someone may have 20 years with the Postal Service, be 45 years old, and have planned to retire at 65, prior to the issuance of the removal. Now that person is facing the proposition of an arbitrator deciding their future; one way or the other. Is it prudent to risk 6 months, 9 months, or more, of potential back pay, against 20 years of future wages if a settlement can be reached which would return them to work without back pay? The answer is obviously no. Sometimes, of course, there is no opportunity for settlement so we must be prepared and willing to fight in arbitration. But when there is a possibility of a settlement which allows us to control the outcome, it is irresponsible to walk away and gamble in arbitration. So the phrase “It’s not my job to gamble with your career” is one way of expressing a philosophy of responsible representation.
The same principle could be applied to contract negotiations whether they involve the negotiation of a LMOU or the negotiation of a national agreement. Although in this context it would probably be better phrased as “It’s not the Union’s job to gamble with your future.” The application of this principle is what we see occurring with the current negotiations over the terms of the 2011 national agreement. Negotiations commenced on August 30th and were initially scheduled to terminate on November 20th. Since that time, the parties have agreed to extend negotiations 3 times, first until December 7th, then until December 16th, and most recently until January 20, 2012. What do these extensions tell us? They tell us that neither party has concluded that further negotiations would be futile and that the possibility of reaching a negotiated agreement still remains.
Many people with whom I’ve spoken have conveyed their impatience with the process; and asked why we just don’t move forward to arbitration. The answer to that question is the principle of responsible representation. Many of you who have been around for several contracts are familiar with the phrase “roll the dice” in arbitration. The conventional wisdom has always been that arbitration is a gamble. If this is true under normal circumstances then the circumstances in which we’re currently negotiating definitely require an abundance of caution. It would be easy to walk away from the table, it would be easy to throw our hands up and say that’s it, were going to arbitration. Conversely, it’s hard to stay at the table when negotiations are tough; but, continuing to talk and continuing to negotiate are how agreements are reached. Continuing to talk is a good thing. There is no guarantee, however, that negotiations will produce an agreement and if go to arbitration we must, then go to arbitration we will. But it would be irresponsible to move towards arbitration unless and until all possibilities to reach a negotiated agreement have been exhausted.
People have also asked which terms I would and wouldn’t like to see in a future national agreement. My initial answer concerns the provision which I don’t like in the current national agreement. If provisions I don’t like in the current national agreement continue into the next national agreement I’m not going to like them any better. That, I suppose is my starting point for evaluation. What improvements have been made to the provisions which I don’t like? Then, I suppose the next step would be to look at the new parts. Many people have pressed me for an answer as to what would be a deal breaker; what would make me vote against ratification? That’s a tough question since I haven’t voted against ratification since the 1990 national agreement. I don’t know if one single issue would cause me to vote no, maybe; but, that’s not a question I can answer in the abstract. I’ve voted to ratify numerous national agreements which contained provisions I didn’t like. I did this because I believed the overall package to be a fair bargain, particularly when viewed against “rolling the dice” in arbitration. There’s always going to be something you don’t like in a contract because negotiated agreements are the product of compromise. I prefer to see a negotiated agreement and if that happens we’ll have to analyze its terms.
Happy New Year to All!