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ANALYSIS: Shorter CBA Lifespans Could Be a Boon for Unions

Oct. 19, 2020, 6:01 PM

Labor negotiations might be experiencing an intriguing side effect of the economic recession and Covid-19 pandemic: The term lengths of collective bargaining agreements signed in the first half of 2020 are coming up shorter than usual.

Bloomberg Law’s database of labor-management settlements has captured details from 425 contracts ratified in January–June. An analysis of contract duration shows that the shortest ones — negotiated to expire in one year or less — make up 15% of the first-half total. Going back 20 years, we haven’t found such a spate of quick-turnaround agreements.

If 2020 ends like this, it’ll be the first year since at least 2000 that one-year-and-shorter contracts aren’t the rarest contracts. It’ll also be the first year since 2011 that we’ll see employers and unions settling as many contracts with two-years-and-shorter terms as those lasting longer than three years (both are currently at 27%).

Shorter contracts make sense to both sides of the table in 2020 — and they promise more billable hours for negotiators as well. But it’s a particular boon for unions, who are able to avoid locking in long-term austerity measures during an economic crisis.

So why aren’t pandemic/recession effects a sure factor in contract duration? The data so far is still a small sample size that includes a chunk of ratifications negotiated pre-Covid-19.

But it’s tantalizing to note trends in the two shortest contract categories (increasing) against the two longest (decreasing). The last time that happened was the first full year of the Great Recession.

Trends in collective bargaining tend to play out over time, due to the built-in variance among contracts’ expiration dates. But if 2020 turns out like 2008, we could be looking at short-term contracts as more-widespread reactions to uncertain times.

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