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Plant Closings and Technological Change: A Guide for Union Negotiators

By Anne Lawrence and Paul Chown - Center for Labor Research and Education, Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California (Berkeley), Date Uncertain, likely early 1980s

American industry today is under going a massive transformation which gravely threatens the job security, wages, and benefits of union workers. Economic recession, the flight of capital overseas, and to low wage areas, the declining competitiveness of domestic industry, and the introduction of labor saving technologies are producing an epidemic of plant closings and layoffs.

The problem of plant closures is stunning. The federal government does not count shutdowns directly, but estimates based on private research data show that over four million jobs a year were lost in the early 1970s as a result of plant closings and migrations. For every ten large manufacturing plants open in 1969, three had closed by 1976. No single area of the country was spared. Since then, hundreds of thousands more workers -- from steelworkers in Lackawanna, New York, to insurance company data processors in San Francisco; from autoworkers in South Gate, California, to tire builders in Akron -- have joined the victims of plant closings.

Technological change also poses a major threat to workers' job security. The development of the microprocessor, or "computer on a chip," has made possible an unprecedented transformation of the workplace. Electronic scanning devices at the supermarket, word processors in the office, electronic transfer of mail at the post office, robots on the assembly line, and numerically controlled machine tools in the shop threaten the jobs of the checkout clerk, secretary, postal clerk, autoworker, and machinist. Business Week has estimated that within the next decade, new technology may transform as many as 45 million jobs, half of them now unionized. As many as 25 million of these jobs may be completely eliminated.

Faced with the major job losses caused by plant closings and technological change, many unions have sought through collective bargaining to check further layoffs and lessen the hardship for those who are already out of work. Job security has always been a major concern of union negotiators. But today, with the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, it has moved to the top of the bargaining agendas of many unions. Provisions such as advance notice of shutdowns and layoffs and restrictions on management's rights to close plants, transfer work, and displace or downgrade workers are increasingly being used by unions to prevent or postpone layoffs. For workers who lose their jobs, unions are seeking improved severance pay, extension of health care benefits, transfer rights, and retraining assistance.

This manual is designed as a practical guide for union negotiators responsible for bargaining contract language on issues related to plant closings, transfer of operations, and technological change. The manual is organized by contract clause, such as advance notice or severance pay. Each section contains an introduction to the major bargaining issues and a checklist of items negotiators may wish to cover. The manual then provides samples of actual contract clauses recently negotiated by unions in a variety of different industries. Model clauses, included for each topic, may be used by negotiators in framing their own proposals for contract bargaining.

Read the report (PDF).

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The Fine Print I:

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