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Watch for Employers Using Benefits as Bargaining Chips

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It’s never a bad idea to be suspicious of your boss, especially when they act like they’re doing you a favor. For workers at FrontLine Service, a Cleveland non-profit that serves the unsheltered, distrust of our employer is one of the critical sentiments that binds us.

FrontLine workers, members of Service Employees Local 1199, provide crucial services to some of the most marginalized and neglected people in Northeast Ohio. Every day, we assist folks struggling with mental health crises, substance abuse, lack of housing, and other hardships.

The work is arduous and the pay is low, but we do what we can to serve the communities in which we live and work.

Last June, our contract with FrontLine was ratified by a narrow margin. Throughout negotiations, there was a persistent sense shared by the bargaining committee that management wasn’t telling us the truth. We were continually given vague, cliché-ridden responses to our inquiries.

As the window for negotiations closed, it appeared that a strike was imminent. However, the minor contract gains we managed to achieve were enough to win the approval of a slim majority.

SUDDENLY THEY LIKE IT

Nearly all of our most ambitious demands were rejected. One such demand was for the implementation of a four-day workweek: 32 hours a week, an additional full day off, with benefits and wages reflecting whatever increases were won through bargaining.

As appealing as the idea of a shortened workweek was to us, none of us thought it had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting added to the contract. If anything, we thought that it could be a bargaining chip we’d give up in order to obtain something else.

So, we were surprised when a few months later management requested to meet with us to discuss how a four-day workweek pilot project could be implemented.

The first draft of management’s proposal included stipulations that would lengthen the workday, cut worker benefits by 15 percent, reduce sick, personal, and vacation leave, and increase the daily productivity standard by an hour.

The proposed pilot would involve 25 out of a workforce of 300 people. This small sample for the pilot is, we believe, inadequate for measuring the four-day workweek’s effectiveness and, more importantly, could undermine solidarity and divide workers.

DID OUR HOMEWORK

In our counterproposal submitted to management March 23, we made it clear that we will not accept any modifications or reductions to hard-won gains in our contract.

Members of our bargaining committee conducted extensive research and we had several illuminating meetings with employers who successfully implemented a four-day workweek, both non-profits and for-profits.

All this suggested that FrontLine’s proposed pilot would be a failure. Cutting benefits, lengthening the workday to 9 hours (a 36-hour workweek), and increasing productivity requirements would diminish any advantages a four-day workweek could offer workers.

When we pushed back in our meetings, management offered some version of the same answer we received during negotiations last summer: “We would if we could, but we can’t.” FrontLine’s revenue, which exceeded $28 million in 2022, is mostly acquired through government grants and Medicaid billing.

When we asked if they had made any good faith efforts to obtain increased funding to raise wages, retain staff, and attract new workers, management declined to respond.

DISTRACTION FROM WAGES

As the concept of a four-day workweek becomes more mainstream, we would be wise to consider how employers and their consultants are responding to the idea’s increased popularity.

In the case of FrontLine, it appears that management’s proposal for a four-day workweek pilot is a Trojan Horse.

Once implemented, management could, through a clause in their proposal giving them “unilateral authority” during the duration of the pilot, refuse to negotiate terms and conditions with our union.

FrontLine Service is severely understaffed, so much so that in February they formally asked Cuyahoga County to search for other non-profits that could replace workers in at least one FrontLine building.

According to management, understaffing is why they want to pilot a four-day workweek. If they can retain staff and attract new workers, they figure they might be able to keep their lights on a little longer. It also would allow FrontLine to appear ‘progressive,’ while they continue to neglect our real concerns.

Management’s proposal delivers a two-fold blow to workers: It allows them to manipulate our contract without negotiating with us, and it distracts from the question of higher wages.

Compared to other agencies offering similar services, FrontLine’s wages are deplorable, with some workers making as little as $15 an hour. Prior to the ratification of our most recent contract, the lowest-paid workers made $13 an hour.

During negotiations last summer, our committee repeatedly told management that if they want to retain and attract workers, they need to offer higher wages. “We would if we could,” management told us, “But we can’t.”

We are waiting for management’s response to our counterproposal. Whether the pilot will favor workers or management, or whether there will be a pilot at all, is yet to be determined.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on March 30, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Adam Barrington is a supportive housing case worker. He is a member of SEIU 1999 and the Industrial Workers of the World.


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