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When unions buy members’ votes: So-called ‘ratification bonuses’ subvert the democratic process

2019-09-10

Imagine walking into your polling place to vote, and being told that if a particular candidate won, all voters would receive $500. That sounds like something that should be illegal, right? But amazingly, something very similar happens frequently in the world of union collective bargaining agreements.

As a general rule, once a new contract is negotiated between management and union leaders, it still must be ratified by a majority vote of the union membership. In order to induce passage, management and the union leaders often agree that if the contract gets approved, some or all union members will get a “ratification bonus.” If the contract gets rejected, they get nothing.

Here is a recent, real-world example.

New York City contracts with dozens of non-profit organizations — including the organization I oversee here in East Harlem — to provide early childhood education services to low-income families. Most of the workers are unionized, and although the collective bargaining agreement technically is between the non-profits and the union, the city pays for all the costs of the program and therefore gets to decide how much the workers should be paid.

These workers historically have been paid much less than public school employees with identical experience — creating a “separate but unequal” system that has been decried for years. Earlier this summer, Mayor de Blasio and the union announced agreement on a new contract, providing substantial starting salary increases for certified teachers in the non-profit centers.

The union consists of more than just certified teachers, however, and the proposed contract did not provide similar salary increases for these lower-paid union members, such as non-certified teachers, maintenance staff, cooks and bookkeepers.

These other workers constitute about 85% of the union members, and this creates a dilemma: How do you get union members to ratify a contract that primarily benefits only about 15% of the workers?

Well, you can rely on “union solidarity,” and trust that the disadvantaged members will vote for the contract in the hope that they will also get increases at some point in the future. But you probably wouldn’t bet the house on it. So what do you do?

Answer: A “ratification bonus.” The proposed contract stated the 85% of the workers who were not getting substantial salary increases would get paid a bonus of $1,800 if the contract was ratified.

The vote was held, and the union members approved the contract, by a margin of 3 to 1.

The bonus was, effectively, a bribe to vote for the contract — albeit a legal bribe, because there currently is no law against it.

It is important to remember that most of the early childhood union workers are low-paid employees, as is typical in the non-profit sector. Indeed, many earn only the $15 per hour minimum wage. For these employees, a potential $1,800 bonus is a huge amount to turn down, particularly when there is rent to pay and a family to feed.

But this short-term gain is to their long-term detriment, because after one year, even a small salary increase is worth more than a one-time $1,800 bonus.

Yes, it is true that the union leaders who represent the workers must agree before a ratification bonus is included in a proposed contract, but often the union’s bargaining power is limited. Indeed, in this case, the union had started by demanding salary increases for all workers in all job titles, but the city refused and the union ended up trying to get the best deal it could.

We need legislation prohibiting these bonuses because they corrupt the democratic contract voting process and take advantage of low-wage workers.

Until such legislation is enacted, elected officials, corporate executives and union leaders should all pledge not to include ratification bonuses in any contract proposal presented to union members for ratification. Only then will we truly know if the members, all of them, support the terms of the proposed agreement.

Nocenti is the executive director of Union Settlement, providing education, wellness and community-building services in East Harlem.