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Management Tends to Have Upper Hand in Negotiations

Caterpillar and its South Milwaukee Union are engaged in tough talks.

Last week, the United Steelworkers Local 1343 voted down a contract that called for allowing the company to temporarily close the plant if needed during downturns, along with wage freezes.

You don’t have to look back all that far to find other examples of tough union negotiations in Wisconsin.

Back in 2009, employees at Mercury Marine accepted major concessions, and in 2010, Harley Davidson had the upper hand.

There was talk that with the bad economy played a role in workers accepting deals they would normally have passed up.

Despite improvements in the economy, Ken Germanson still believes companies are getting what they want. Germanson is the former president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

He says negotiations have largely favored management over the last 30 years.

“Ever since Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, kind of giving the signal to employers that they should go all out to beat back unions,” Germanson says.

Germanson says what’s happening in Wisconsin is following the trend nationally. In fact, he says we might actually be a little better off in the private sector because of the strong labor movement here. Still, he admits things are tough.

“People are scared of losing their job. The union is kind of stuck in the middle here because the individual worker, he doesn’t see a job, or she doesn’t see a job somewhere down the road in case that plant decides on major layoffs or to close. So they’re easily threatened into taking these actions,” Germanson says.

Germanson says the excuse of global competition is often not the reason companies ask for concessions.

But Marquette University Labor Relations Professor Moira Kelly says businesses are up against a lot.

“They have other issues in terms of quality, in terms of sales, in terms of competition, in terms of legislation or regulation. So they have a set of difficult circumstances, and labor is certainly facing very difficult circumstances,” Kelly says.

Kelly is also president of Kelly Consulting; it specializes in workplace dispute resolution and labor negotiations.

She says it’s typically in the best interest of everyone to come to an agreement fast.

“Very long, dragged out fights between management and labor are not good for either management or labor in the long-term,” Kelly says.

Dragged out negotiations could lead to bad blood between the parties and the possible loss of business. Kelly says despite perceptions, nasty negotiations are rare.

“The vast majority of labor contracts in this country, are settled by the parties. They don’t bring in anybody else to get it done. They handle it themselves,” Kelly says.

As for Caterpillar, Kelly says she has no idea what will happen.

She says she’s been at enough bargaining tables to know that the line told to the media, isn’t always what’s happening.

Caterpillar and USW1343 will head back to the bargaining table on Wednesday.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.