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Updated: 13 Nov 2020

Union Constituency Authority Limits


This case study examines the constituency authority that a union negotiator must observe in labour negotiations, and the consequences of exceeding this authority.

Union negotiators may find that the authority limits they are authorised to observe in a collective bargaining labor negotiation on behalf of their members can be a double edged sword. One tactical advantage in using their constituency authority can include the ability to manipulate public visibility to what is transpiring behind closed doors Another advantage to gain leverage. By raising issues into the public forum, negotiators may be able to manipulate public support for their negotiation goals.

Another advantage might be gained in the limiting of concessions by conducting the negotiation in front of their members or constituency. By so doing, the negotiator risks shows to company management negotiators that their authority has limitations. A union negotiator might illustrate their solidarity with the union constituency by displaying a certain degree of militancy in union demands and expectations.The disadvantage can occur when the labor representative exceeds their authority. They might find they are caught in a squeeze by agreeing to a tentative proposal behind closed doors. Afterwards, when the union member constituency votes against to ratify the proposed agreement, the union negotiator suddenly finds their credibility with their constituency to be under-minded by result. The rejection of a proposed agreement is not that dissimilar to a non-confidence vote. Union negotiators must sometimes walk a fine line and be careful not to exceed their authority limit. Sometimes, the militancy employed by the union negotiators takes on an extreme that causes harm not only to themselves but also to their constituency. Union negotiators need to always remember that their role is that of a negotiation agent.

In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike against the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States. Effectively, every aircraft controller governed by the federal agency had walked off the job. Previously, the union leader representative, Roberts Poli had spent several months attempting to negotiate a new package with the FAA. A tentative agreement was reached that was then presented to the union members to vote on ratifying the proposal. The tentative contract was rejected by an overwhelming 90% percent of its members. Poli returned to the negotiating table to get a better package from the FAA. Relations had soured significantly between the two parties. The FAA now dug in its own heels and refused to offer any more concessions or up the offer any further. After an additional two fruitless weeks of further talks between the two parties, Poli instructed PATCO to take strike action of its members against the FAA. Going on strike is normally fine in most circumstances, but here is where Poli exceeded his authority limits. The contract that had been signed previously with the FAA strictly prohibited a strike action, and deemed any such strike action as illegal. So, what happened? The FAA and the administration under President Ronald Regan implemented the following steps against Poli, and PATCO’s members:


  1. All striking controllers were fired from their jobs.
  2. A federal injunction was obtained and both the union and its leaders were fined several millions of dollars a day.
  3. Poli and some of the other union executive leaders were thrown in prison.
  4. The union’s strike fund was impounded.
  5. All striking controllers were banned from any further employment with the U.S. government in any capacity whatsoever.It was not until 1993 that President Clinton pardoned the controllers and declared that they could now be re-hired. This was 12 years after the fact!
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