[Excerpt] After two decades of massive employment losses in heavily unionized sectors of the economy and exponential growth of the largely unorganized service sector, the U.S. labor movement is struggling to remain relevant. Despite new organizing initiatives and practices, union organizing today remains a tremendously arduous endeavor, particularly in the private sector, as workers and their unions are routinely confronted with an arsenal of aggressive legal and illegal antiunion employer tactics. This vigorous opposition to unions in the private sector does not stop once an election is won, but continues throughout bargaining for an initial union agreement, all too often turning organizing victories into devastating first-contract defeats.
Despite these overwhelming obstacles, workers still organize and win—through certification elections and voluntary recognition campaigns in both the private and public sectors. And each year unions successfully negotiate thousands of first contracts in the United States, providing union representation for the first time to hundreds of thousands of new workers. This research takes an in-depth look at what unions achieve in these initial union contracts. Why, when confronted with such powerful opposition, do unorganized workers continue to want to belong to unions and newly organized workers want to stay union? What do these first contracts provide that makes the struggle worthwhile?
To explore these questions, we analyze and evaluate union first contracts along four primary dimensions. First, we inventory the basic workers’ rights provided by these contracts, which go beyond the very limited rights provided by federal and state labor law under the “employment at will” system. Second, we evaluate how first contracts provide workers and their unions with the institutional power to shape work and the labor process on a day-to-day basis. Third, we explore how first contracts codify the presence and power of unions in daily work life, and we evaluate which institutional arrangements provide a meaningful role for workers and their unions in their workplaces. Fourth, we examine the kinds of workplace benefits that are codified and supplemented in first contracts, gaining important insights into the types of human resource practices that exist in newly unionized workplaces. Finally, by examining the interactions among these four dimensions, we explore the limitations of what first contracts have been able to achieve in the current organizing environment, and what it would take for unions to improve the quality of first contracts.