For many years I've tried to guess when--and even whether--some labor dispute or the other would be settled. Those guesses, rarely made in print, have often been wrong because the most unexpected maneuvers can happen suddenly when unions and companies seriously try to negotiate their differences.
Just when an agreement seems impossible, one is reached. Sometimes it comes because of a dramatic, intriguing policy shift by the union, the company or both.
A few years ago, for instance, I guessed--privately--that it would be a cold day during a summer heat wave in the Imperial Valley before Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers would settle its particularly bitter battles with two of its largest and seemingly intractable enemies, Sam Andrews' Sons and Abatti Produce.
My guess was wrong. The growers and the small but world famous farm workers' union did just that last week. In what seems to be a major policy change, the UFW negotiated two precedent-setting contracts that are called "foot in the door" agreements. Such agreements result in a contract that at least gives written, legal union protections to workers even if its terms are significantly less than the union's original goal, or even less than provided in other growers' contracts. Under this foot-in-the-door theory, the union survives to fight later for further gains.
Until now, the UFW's once firm strategy had been to set contract goals and make as few concessions as possible. Then, after one such agreement was reached, other growers would be expected to copy the first contract. If they didn't, no agreements were reached.
Chavez's critics complained that the strategy was an outgrowth of the union's view of itself as a social, almost religious cause to help all farm workers. Therefore, the UFW set high goals and was willing to fight as long as necessary to win those goals, whether or not the battles resulted in written contracts.
In contrast, a typical union seeks compromises to win contracts and tries, over time, to improve those contracts.
It took almost nine years to reach those two UFW settlements, and they mark a basic shift in the union's bargaining strategy. Also, they apparently grew out of the growers' realization that the union was not going to somehow disappear and that they might avoid huge back pay awards to workers in pending legal actions if the contract disputes were settled.
About a year ago, Joe Herman, the Los Angles-based attorney for Sam Andrews' Sons, made a new proposal. He didn't expect it to be accepted. When it was, with only minor changes, Herman said he was "absolutely astounded."
The union's acceptance of a clearly inferior contract came after nearly a decade of strikes, boycotts and a near-record number of legal actions by the union charging Sam Andrews with a host of unfair, illegal practices against its workers.
The pact provides for no wage hikes for the workers, who average about $7.89 an hour but whose annual income is well below the poverty line.
Even more surprising, the pact, unlike other union contracts, requires no company contributions to some of the union's hard-won benefit programs such as its Robert F. Kennedy medical plan or its Martin Luther King Jr. educational fund. Nor will the company have to dismiss workers who are not members "in good standing" with the union, such as those who cross picket lines.
Ben Maddox, a UFW officer, said the UFW action was necessary because "it is now almost impossible for us to win any of our legal battles with the company before the (state) Agricultural Labor Relations Board because the agency is now under the control of Gov. (George) Deukmejian and is just a tool of the growers.
"The agency that was set up to protect workers from abuses by their bosses isn't protecting us any more. We realized our best hope was to get some kind of legal, written contract with the grower, even an inferior one, and seek improvements in it later."
The grower's decision to sign a contract was not based on an altruistic desire to do the right thing after so many years of fighting the union. First, the contract includes rarely made major concessions by the union. Also, it may be of significant help to the company in still-pending legal cases because if the company loses them, it could be forced to pay millions of dollars in back pay to present and past employees.
The pact could mitigate--if not eliminate--some of the most serious charges, such as one accusing the firm of refusing to bargain in good faith with the UFW. After all, company attorney Herman notes, there is now a contract that was negotiated with the union, so how can the company be charged with refusal to bargain?
However, Sam Andrews could still lose the legal arguments because the back pay litigation is based on allegations of past illegal actions, not the just concluded contract negotiations.