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The Basics of Collective Bargaining

June 13, 2018

What is collective bargaining and why is it important?

Collective bargaining (also known as “contract bargaining” or “contract negotiations”) means that we use the strength of our numbers to sit down with our employer and negotiate our Union contract. The things we bargain over can include our pay, benefits, hours, holidays, sick leave, seniority, job safety—and also important aspects of our job that affect patient safety like staffing levels, work quality, supplies and resources, working conditions and other worksite issues. Most union contracts provide far more protections than state and federal laws. For example, California (like most states) follows a legal doctrine called “at will employment,” which means workers who don't have job protections in a union contract can be fired for any reason—or no reason at all.

Basically, collective bargaining is our chance to use our Union strength to have a say at work about what we care about…and to have it guaranteed in writing!

How am I involved?

SEIU Local 121RN members are involved in every step leading up to our contract ratification.

  1. First, we identify what improvements we want to see in our contract by completing a Bargaining Survey. Be sure to participate in this important step!
  2. We also nominate and then elect our co-workers who will represent us on the Bargaining Team. These co-workers, supported by legal and contract experts from our union, will meet with management’s representatives to negotiate our contract. Consider becoming a Bargaining Team member!
  3. Once contract negotiations begin, the most important thing we can do is stay informed. Be sure to sign up to receive emailed Bargaining Updates. This is how you can stay informed and support your Bargaining Team.
  4. We can support our Bargaining Team by joining the Contract Action Team. The “CAT” team is made up of our colleagues who help keep us informed, engaged and vocal during the negotiations period. Be a part of the CAT!
  5. Finally, we can get involved by showing the strength of our unity. We can publicly support our Bargaining Team by doing things like wearing our Union scrubs or “I support my Bargaining Team” stickers on the days when contract negotiations take place. We can sign petitions and even, if it comes to that, participate in an informational picket. Basically, what it comes down to is this: the strength of our contract depends on the strength of our unity!
  6. Finally, we vote on (“ratify”) our contract. It’s up to us to decide if we accept the terms it sets out or not. Be sure to vote!

Tell me more about collective bargaining agreements.

A Union contract—also called a collective bargaining agreement or “CBA”—is a legally-binding document that guarantees the terms of our employment. It means our employers can’t change the rules or the terms of our employment.

Once ratified through a vote of the bargaining unit, it’s up to us to know our rights under the CBA and to defend them. If you experience an issue that violates our contract, it’s likely that others are experiencing it, too. It’s important to contact your Steward or SEIU Local 121RN Rep/Organizer as soon as you notice a contract violation. This way, we ensure that the protections in our contract that we fought so hard for truly protect us and all other employees in our bargaining unit.

Finally, it’s important to remember that we might not get absolutely everything we want in our contracts. “Bargaining” with management means it’s a back-and-forth, give-and-take process. We have ongoing opportunities to build on our contracts over time and make even more progress.

While collective bargaining might not solve all the problems at our workplaces, it’s the only real way that we can have any say in our jobs and the quality of the care we provide.

Learn more about becoming a leader at your worksite. Consider becoming a Union Steward and get involved in our Nurse-Powered Politics program, where we fight for good nursing legislation, such as our "Stop Repeat Offender Hospitals" bill, SB 227.