Under the very best of conditions, negotiating a collective bargaining agreement is difficult, requiring extensive homework, listening to members, and understanding the industry and the employers. That’s during normal times. Once you add a deadly pandemic, a national lockdown, a failing economy, widespread unemployment, state-mandated construction project shutdowns, protesters marching in the streets, and curfews, negotiating a progressive labor agreement becomes nearly impossible.
In March, on behalf of the Northern California Construction Committee, International Rep and Local 853 Recording-Secretary Stu Helfer began talks with the United Contractors Association (UCON), hoping to build on the important gains made in the 2016 contract.
The first hurdle was that the talks wouldn’t be face-to-face but on Zoom, the popular video discussion platform. Unfortunately, Zoom eliminates many of the nuances of across-the-table negotiations, like “reading” the room, “reading” body language, or “reading” the other side’s notes (upside down, of course).
One other hurdle: UCON and the Associated General Contractors of California (AGC-CA) wanted to negotiate separately. AGC represents some of the contractors in Northern California, while UCON represents most others. Together, these are powerful associations, and not afraid to exercise that power and expend resources to get their way.
While the moment’s many crises didn’t stop UCON and AGC from demanding changes at the outset, they remembered our Committee’s unity and commitment from previous contract negotiations and knew of its sizable resources to back-up any labor action. Before long, both associations signed a three-year contract that includes the largest yearly increases in the Committee’s history — coming to an economic total of $2.25/hour each year.
“We had set clear goals for the next few years in terms of health and welfare coverage, and improving wages and pension levels,” says Helfer, adding “This is the first time in the history of the Master Construction Agreement that yearly economic increases have exceeded $ 2.00/hour. To obtain that kind of settlement, without any takeaways is difficult to imagine in normal times, but to achieve it under the conditions that we were working in is a testament to the unity of our Committee.”
The Northern California Teamsters Construction committee consists of Locals 137, 150, 315, 386, 431, 439, 533, 665, 853, 890, 912, and 948, ranging from Fresno to the Oregon state line and east to Reno.