United States: Goat Subcontracting (Yes, We Said "Goat Subcontracting") Grievance Highlights Importance Of Strategic Collective Bargaining

If you work in a unionized workplace, surely the union at one point or another has "gotten your goat." Well, the goats are now getting their revenge, and a union doesn't like it.

Over the past two summers, administrators at Western Michigan University have employed goats to clear out undergrowth in wooded areas on campus by the tried and true method of eating it. This has allowed the university to clear out hazardous weeds, including poison ivy, without the need for pesticides and without the need to expose workers to dangerous working conditions. It would seem like a win-win-win for the university, its employees, and its students.

Not so, says the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 1668. The union, which represents landscaping employees at the university, sees the goats as a threat to its members' livelihood. As a result, the union has filed a grievance with the University claiming that the goats are unlawful subcontractors who have taken away work that could have otherwise gone to the union.

It's very easy to poke fun at the union here and make jokes about "goat grievances" and "bleat-ing heart liberals." But the truth is that when dealing with a grievance like this, contract language can make a huge difference. If the grievance is submitted to arbitration, the case may just turn on what the collective bargaining agreement says about things like management rights, subcontracting, and the scope of the work performed by the union. If the collective bargaining agreement's language is not favorable to the university, it is entirely possible that an arbitrator would rule in the union's favor.

For this reason, creating a strategic plan for collective bargaining is absolutely essential. Negotiating a labor contract with a union may be the employer's only chance over a period of three to five years to materially alter the terms and conditions of employment. Stakeholders from throughout the company must therefore get involved during negotiations in order to answer questions like, "How will our business look different five years from now?" and "Does our existing agreement impose any impediments that prevent us from getting where we need to go?"

Only after those big picture questions are answered can employers make informed and strategic decisions about how to approach collective bargaining. Without getting input from all corners of the business, human resources and labor relations professionals may overlook important areas where the collective bargaining agreement could prevent the employer from making changes the employer would otherwise need in order to survive and thrive in a competitive marketplace.

Hiring goats to help clear brush is a great example of an employee coming up with a creative solution to a tricky problem. It would be a shame if the failure to engage in strategic collective bargaining left the University unable to "farm" out the work.

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