A collective bargaining agreement codifies the various conditions of employment mutually agreed to by the union and management. The agreement is a binding document on the employees, the union and management. It is in everyone's best interest to assure that the terms of the agreement are abided by and that disputes over the application and meaning of the agreement are resolved quickly and at the lowest practical level.
Contract administration is a daily function and probably the most important labor relations responsibility supervisors have. It is their interpretation and application that establishes numerous past practices and can be the cause of employee grievances. Supervisors are not the only ones administering the contract. Union officials and employees keep a keen eye out for assuring the contract is being complied with.
Contract administration and interpretation can be a difficult task. The first thing a supervisor needs to do is get a copy of the agreement, read it thoroughly and refer to it often. Even if all the managers, employees and union officials memorized every word of the agreement, there would still be disputes concerning its meaning. Some contract language can be ambiguous; there can be conflicts between the various provisions of the agreement and laws and rules may change during the life of the agreement so as to make its implementation a true challenge.
Two types of ambiguities in agreements are patent and latent ambiguities. Patent ambiguities result when the terms of the agreement are open to various interpretations depending on the reader's perceptions. For example, contract language calling for the granting of "reasonable" official time or detailing employees only for "short durations" can have various interpretations all of which technically comply with the specific language of the provision.
Latent ambiguities are more difficult to recognize from a simple reading of the agreement. These ambiguities become apparent when they actually have to be implemented. Though they appear to be clear and easily applicable, as unusual circumstances arise, their meaning becomes more cloudy. An example would be a provision requiring that preference for leave will be based on seniority. When implemented, though, the question arises whether that is seniority in the division, at the installation or total Federal service seniority.
When these and other disputes arise concerning the interpretation of the contract, the parties have a number of avenues in which to seek a solution. The first and best way is for the parties to mutually agree as to the interpretation of the agreement. If that effort isn't successful, they can look to past practices as a guide to the interpretation. The parties can also look to any negotiation history they have. If minutes were kept of the negotiations, there may be some explanation as to the parties' intent during the applicable negotiation session. If they are unable to resolve the dispute through any of these processes, the matter can be raised under the parties' negotiated grievance procedure. All negotiated grievance procedures provide for binding arbitration as a final step to the process. Here, an outside neutral party, the arbitrator, will decide for the parties what the contract provision means and how it is to be implemented. Obviously, resolving the matter locally, without outside intervention, is the best solution. The parties will be much more likely to accept, and be responsible for, a solution they helped craft. An outside imposed solution may not please either side.
One way to assist in proper contract administration is to keep open the channels of communication with the labor relations specialist and the local union officials. Remember, contract administration is not the sole responsibility of the supervisor.
If, in the administration of the agreement, a supervisor comes across language that is vague, ambiguous or simply burdensome, let the management negotiating team know. They will be able to address the matter with the union during renegotiation of the agreement.
Proper contract administration serves everyone's interests. The quality of this effort by both management and union officials will do much to determine whether there is cooperation or conflict between labor and management at the installation. It helps create consistency in the labor relations program which furthers the parties' efforts in developing a positive labor-management relationship.