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The Independent Union Connection provides on-line advice based on questions asked by our readers — if you have a question, just ask our panel to get advice that can help. 

Here are some questions we've been asked ... including new ones about Worker's Comp ... information employers must provide to the union ... and using the Family and Medical Leave Act. Note that all questions used here are posted with the permission of the writer  ...

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Question: I work for a Retail Home Improvement Center. Our Employees association, is negotiating a contract for the next three years. There are four separate "units" (three stores & one warehouse) included in this agreement. My problem is this: the company pays our members less at an outlying store than it does at its three other units (located in more urban areas). The company has stated that they can afford to pay more but that because the local competition in the outlying area has lower wages they won't match scale with the urban area. What arguments can be made, or information used to argue our point? The moral in our unit is very poor because of this situation. Highly trained personnel are leaving for jobs elsewhere and or giving poor performance because of lack of care in the job they perform. Thanks for any help you can give. – R.A., Ukiah, Ca.


Independent Unionist: 

We have faced this problems many times as companies try to move to low-wage areas to cut their costs; meanwhile, it's not like there are special prices or cars or washing machines or food items for workers who live in lower wage areas.

One thought is to calculate some of the hidden costs of employee turnover. Advertising, interviewing, hiring, lost productivity, training, COBRA etc. If you would like, send me your address and I will send you a very comprehensive checklist of items to include when calculating the cost of turnover. It may well turn out that whatever they think they save in cheaper wages they more than make up for in other more hidden costs.

We find that it takes both good, principled leadership and forthrightly confronting the problem in negotiations (which it sounds like you are doing a very good job of) and organized pressure from the membership to make sure management is getting the message. There are number of tactics, short of striking or stopping work that may help to unite the membership and build some pressure, such as petitions, rallies, banners, buttons, or a mass grievance.

Here are a few questions to look at that may or may not have any relevance whatsoever to the situation you are looking at, but nevertheless... . When they opened the new store did they get any tax breaks for job creation? Were there any strings attached as to the numbers or rate of pay? Are there any natural allies in the community who would join in a coalition for fairness, such as priests or ministers, or elected officials or a Jobs with Justice chapter?

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Question: What are the guidelines for the Worker’s Compensation provider list? How many choices of doctors should be given? How long do you have to go to a provider list doctor before you can go to the doctor of your choice? – D.K., Danville, Pennsylvania


Independent Unionist: Please note that the writer is from Pennsylvania and is asking specific information about his state’s Workers’ Compensation Law.

Under PA. law, the company can restrict your choice of doctor only for 90 days. If your employer posts a list of 6 designated health care providers (no more than 4 of whom may be coordinated care organizations and no fewer than 3 of whom shall be physicians), you are required to be under the care of one of the listed health care providers for a period of 90 days from the date of the first visit.

You have the right to choose which provider you will see. The fact that the company has a doctor on the premises does not matter. It’s your choice. If one of the medical providers refers you to a specialists, the medical treatment of the second doctor must also be paid for by the employer. If surgery is recommended by the listed doctor, you may get a second opinion from a doctor you select.

Ninety days after your first visit to one of the six listed medical providers, or immediately if no list is posted, you may see a qualified "practitioner" (doctor, chiropractor, psychiatrist, etc).

Whenever you see a new doctor, notify your employer within 5 days and have your doctor file a medical report within 21 days from the first visit and once a month after that. Your employer has the right to receive these medical reports, however, they do not have the right to force themselves between you and your doctor.

I hope that this explanation answers your question. If not please get back to us.

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Question: We as a committee are in the middle of negotiating a handbook with the company. It is my understanding that the company must give the new employee a handbook of the company rules. I’ve been with this company for 4 years and have yet to get one. Is this legal? – L.M. Cleveland, Ohio

Independent Unionist: There is no law which requires an employer to supply its employees with copies of the rules of conduct, a handbook, or even a copy of the contract it negotiates with the union. On the other hand - the Union has the legal right to request and receive copies of all rules and regulations, benefit plans covering employees, wage scales, seniority lists and what the company believes are all provisions of the current contract or handbook as it applies to employees. Such request should be in writing.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, the Company has an obligation (especially during contract bargaining) to supply these items to the Union negotiating committee in a timely manner. If the Company refuses to provide such information, it is violating the law and committing an unfair labor practice.

Once your Union receives the requested information, it has the legal right to provide members with copies. In bargaining, the Union may also propose that the Contract and employee handbook be printed and distributed to all workers and new hires. Often the cost of printing the Contract is paid by the Company. In some situations, the Union and Company share the cost.

We would be happy to help you draft a Union information request to your Company or supply you with an example that another union actually used as it prepared for bargaining.

Let us know how this goes.

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Question: Several workers in my Company have tried to use the Family Leave Act to get time off to help with sick kids or spouses. Our boss says that this Law doesn’t apply to us — because the Company only has 90 employees. Is he right? – J.M. in Seattle, Washington


Independent Unionist: Your boss is wrong. FMLA requires public and private employers with 50 or more workers in a 75 mile radius to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year (meaning the law applies to only about 5% of all employers and 40% of all employees).

Leave can be taken for birth or adoption, to care for a seriously ill parent, spouse or child, or to undergo medical treatment for a serious illness. If you want more information on the Family and Medical Leave Act, please visit our web site at

Question: My union seems to be in a jam almost all the time. The Company brings in their big shot lawyer from New York and we can’t seem to find a good lawyer who can keep pace with him. Can you give us the name of a good lawyer we can use? – C.G. in Dayton, Ohio

Independent Unionist: We’re real skeptical about relying too much on attorneys. Our experience tells us that the real power of the union resides in a united and determined membership – and that’s what makes the biggest difference in negotiations. Without a united membership, the most skilled negotiator or lawyer is at the mercy of management.

Please be careful about attorneys. We find that attorneys are normally a very conservative group – we’ve heard stories about how some lawyers spend more time telling union leaders that something can’t be accomplished in negotiations than they spend time arguing the Union’s case at the bargaining table.

Most general practice attorneys know very little about labor law and bargaining. If after reading this response, you still insist upon getting a "good" lawyer, we suggest contacting the National Lawyers Guild, a national organization of pro-labor attorneys at (212) 627-2656 or by e-mail at

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Question: I was recently elected to my union’s negotiating committee. Someone told me that I should learn how to "cost-out" a contract. Can you explain what this means and how I can get the knowledge to "cost out" the contract. – P.K. New York, NY

Independent Unionist: "Costing-out a contract" is when union or management bargainers figure out the actual monetary cost to the employer of making wage, benefit and other types of improvements in a new contract or a new proposal.

However, please don’t fall into the trap of negotiating economics on the basis of how much the overall "package" costs the employer! These calculations can be useful tools for us to understand the cost to the employer of the different components of our economic demands, but should never substitute for negotiations that are based on addressing the real needs of members.

UE has an online workshop which you can a also print out for other bargaining committee members, called "Numbers Crunching for Negotiations." The link or address for that page is ic_costcon.html Please feel free to use this tool and let us know if it was useful to you.

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Question: We're having trouble getting our members to attend membership meetings. It seems like we’ve tried almost everything, including drawing prizes or gifts to increase attendance. Do you have any ideas? – J.S., Lansing, Michigan

Independent Unionist: It’s real hard to give you useful advice without knowing the specific situation. We have some questions for you which might give you some ideas:

1) Do stewards and other union leaders make personal face-to-face contact with every member to remind them to attend? 

2) Who plans meetings and do you think about having some special topic that might be of interest at every meeting? For instance one local union invited a representative of the health insurance company so he could answer members’ questions;

3) How are meetings run — does the agenda move along crisply or do one or two members dominate causing the meeting to get bogged down in some detail that doesn’t interest anyone else?

4) Do most membership meetings drag on much longer than they should? (One and a half hours is probably the longest they should last!)

5) How many members usually attend meetings and how many members are in the union?

Let us know your answers to these questions and we can give you more specific advice on this page.

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Question: Help! Management recently told us that they were putting in a new absenteeism point system to crack down on our members and that there’s nothing in our contract (it runs until 2001) which stops them from doing it. Are they right? – M.S., Van Nuys, California

Independent Unionist: No, your management is wrong! Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) covering private employers, your bosses must bargain with the Union before implementing new or changed policies when the Union requests bargaining. Most state public employee bargaining track the NLRA’s on mid-term bargaining.

Our web-site has an in-depth look at "Mid-Contract Bargaining Changes at stwd_midcon.html. Please take a look at this so that you can figure out to slow down your boss or even stop the new policy.

Please let us know whether you had some success on the stopping the new absenteeism program.

Disclaimer: The information and advice presented in "Ask the Independent Unionist" should not be construed as or relied upon as legal advice of any kind. UE, its Independent Unions Department, and the Independent Unionist assume no liability whatsoever for a reader's use, interpretation or reliance on this information or for its future dissemination.

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