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Home » Officer Columns » Pattern Bargaining: A Blueprint for Improvements or Concessions?

Pattern Bargaining: A Blueprint for Improvements or Concessions?

  -  AFM International President

The perennial objective of unions has been to “take wages out of competition,” as labor-economists, who analyze the supply and demand of labor and patterns in wage, income, and productivity are prone to say. By seeking to standardize minimum wages and benefits across an industry, unions can stabilize wages, prevent competition among workers and employers, and avoid a race to the bottom. More importantly for the AFM, minimum wages across given industries, such as sound recording, film, live TV, and theatrical tours, provide a floor for future improvements in successor agreements.

For many years, this was accomplished through pattern bargaining, a term that usually refers to an industry-wide approach to negotiations where work and production are intended for a national or international market.

Unions—including the AFM—would set a wage and benefit “pattern” in negotiations with a particular employer, or with joint or multiple employers, and then negotiate the same terms with others in the same industry. Wages, conditions, and in our case, residual patterns, would also guide the bargaining in related areas of employment.

An example is the AFM’s Live Television agreement. Negotiated with the three major networks—NBC, CBS and ABC, the agreement serves as the standard for musicians appearing on nationally televised programs. Independent TV producers also sign that agreement. Its benefit, reuse, and new media provisions are modeled for other audiovisual agreements.

From the 1960s through the remainder of the 20th century, when unions—including the AFM—were negotiating industry-wide agreements, progressive contract settlements were driven in large part through pattern bargaining. For many years, the AFM’s media agreements contained session wages, per-hour production and air rates, and benefit contributions that were within a few dollars of each other, despite differing schedules for residual payments and re-use patterns.

In the 1980s and 1990s, progressive wage, fringe benefit, and workplace standards negotiated by major US orchestras became a model for other orchestral negotiating teams in their efforts for improved contract provisions across the symphonic field.

But in the first decades of the 21st century, pattern bargaining slowed as a means of wringing improvements from employers, who sometimes turned the tables and used the pattern process for concessions. What happened?

In live performance sectors, local patterns were squeezed by the recessionary events of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Where the AFM negotiates industry-wide media agreements, pressures from global competition and the shifting of content delivery and media consumption from physical product to interactive and noninteractive streaming have disrupted entertainment union patterns. Decline in union density has also adversely impacted collective bargaining overall. Fifty years ago, a third of American workers were unionized. Today, it’s one in 10.

Despite its record of workplace improvements, pattern bargaining was never really worker-driven. It was an approach implemented by union negotiators in business unionist style, behind closed doors, with little rank-and-file involvement. And as long as wages and benefits went up, there was little cause for concern. But in the concessionary atmosphere of the last 15 years, it has mattered far more. An AFM example was the dreaded tier payment pattern for short engagement theatrical tours (SET) that materialized in 2001, but disappeared with rank-and-file assistance during our 2011 Pamphlet B-SET negotiations.

The point of pattern bargaining was to neutralize wage competition, prevent unions from being whipsawed by employers for worse contract terms, and to provide a foundation to move wages, benefits, and conditions ahead. But today, in many industries, employers are using pattern bargaining as a tool for concessions. And where concessionary attempts are defeated, employers are deliberately violating contract provisions and risking costly arbitrations in an effort to get things from the union that they failed to get at the bargaining table, to set a pattern of retreat.

Even where wage patterns have survived, some remain in place surrounded by a multitude of nonunion companies. Where a majority of the work can be done nonunion, surviving patterns can hardly take wages out of competition. Bottom-feeding, nonunion companies and contractors, with sub-standard wages and workers willing to accept them, put enormous pressure on good paying union jobs.

All of this begs a question or two for our local officers. When a new employer knocks on your door offering jobs with contract wages, benefits, or other conditions below those thought to be patterned in a related workplace, and thus unacceptable, are you trying to protect a pattern that really exists? Or are you mistakenly defending a pattern that’s already broken from prior concessionary bargaining?

Active patterns should be defended because they form a basis from which to organize and bargain wages and benefits into related agreements. But an existing pattern won’t remain long, if it becomes a tool for employers to extract concessions—such as locking subs and extras into permanently lower standards, or expanding the definition of promotional use in our industry-wide media agreements. It takes solidarity in the workplace and real rank-and-file involvement to turn things around. And you can’t get much of that by lowering your standards. Bargaining is tougher these days, and so is the pressure on workers and the unions that represent them. What’s important is to protect and defend existing patterns, avoid being handcuffed by patterns broken long ago, and recognize and resist employer attempts to pattern bargain concessions.

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