Collective Agreements as a Game of Lego

By Daniela Ceccon, WageIndicator West Africa, Southern Europe, global data bases manager COBRA, with special thanks to Victoriano Zacarias Mendez (CGTG) and Jorge Espinosa (CGT)

The digitization of the process to reach Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) aims to facilitate the Social Dialogue in Colombia and Guatemala and to simultaneously empower trade unions. It follows and builds on earlier initiatives run in Latin America by WageIndicator and CNV (the Dutch Christian Trade Union Confederation). In this CBA-context digitization means the use of information technology to make the storage, access, analysis, comparison and creation of collective agreements smarter, easier and faster. This should lead to shorter, more transparent and easier to understand CBAs, which is very good for workers and employers alike – regardless of sector or country.

 The first steps to find out this potential were taken with CGTG (Confederación Central General de Trabajadores de Guatemala) and CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo - Colombia) in July 2015. With the help of a short questionnaire, we observed that their main difficulties are to find out what workers need and which issues they have, and also to determine the socio-economic situation of the companies. In Guatemala in addition negotiations with the employers were said to be one of the most difficult aspects in the process.

Treating CBA-clauses as Lego-blocks: Does it Work?

The idea we wanted to test from the outset is to look at collective agreements as structures composed of Lego-blocks. Does it hold a promise for digitization and improved efficiency? In this approach each block stands for a singular clause. But would it be possible to categorize these clauses, i.e. assorting them under certain headers and assigning a particular color to all blocks in that category? Would this way of looking at CBAs reveal some structure – and could it be that many CBAs, wherever they may be concluded, share some of those basic structural characteristics?

To discuss and work on this from the 20th of July meetings were held with CGTG and CGT in Guatemala (first week) and Colombia (second week), respectively. What have been the results of these two weeks of brainstorming?

Indeed, by analysing a few collective agreements of both countries, we managed to see some patterns and recurring topics. Moreover we could isolate a few groups of blocks which usually remain untouched (their content basically does not change) and other groups of blocks which, by contrast, are negotiable. This basic finding in principle should allow us to:

  • Create CBA-formats which can be downloaded online and serve as a basis for negotiators;
  • Pinpoint ‘hot topics’ and present them to workers, so that they can select the most urgent. 

Guatemala: a Model is Found

It was a sunny Monday morning in Guatemala City, the perfect day to start working on something new. In the headquarters of the CGTG we began to discuss two main issues:

  • Would a sample-CBA be useful in making collective bargaining easier?
  • Would a questionnaire to workers be useful to understand what workers want?

The answer to both questions was ‘yes’, because these two things would fulfil the need of trade unions to make the collective bargaining process more clear and simple. In many cases trade unions don’t have a sample-CBA to start from, don’t know what is actually important for workers and anyway don’t follow a specific process to get to new collective agreements.

There were discussions, proposals and explanations, and we managed to go through the entire collective agreement and decide which are the provisions that should come in every collective agreement and which ones are optional.

Next step: is it possible to simplify this even more and get to a few ‘basic’ Lego-blocks surrounded by ‘optional’ Lego-blocks? With Alberto Ramirez - the general secretary of CGTG - and the legal advisers Jaime Humberto Bautista and Edna Magnolia Liquez Romero, we analysed in detail a selected collective agreement for the public sector and improved it article by article. The result was really something unique, according to the legal advisers as well: nothing like that had ever been done before.

We put the best Lego-blocks together to create a model, but as the provisions need to be filled in, it is up to the negotiators to make them 'the best clauses' in terms of provisions. But at the level of 'topics', both lawyers agreed that this model is complete and even formally very good. Complicated clauses could be simplified to avoid misunderstanding. We tried to use proper words and make the text easy to understand for everyone.

What we did also is to separate the negotiable blocks from the blocks that will remain untouched. The negotiable blocks in turn could be subdivided in 'important for trade unions' or 'important for workers'.

Reality may be complex, but we can try to make it understandable! In the end all agreed that the idea of Lego-blocks is good and that we can see which blocks can stay the same and which are to be negotiated, which ones are the basics and which ones are optional. As the sample for municipalities is very well structured and could be simplified while retaining the possibility to detail clauses during actual negotiations, it became the basis for the model.  We include it at the end of this article.

We did not prepare the questionnaire for workers, yet. A questionnaire for workers is interesting, but all agreed that workers also need to be informed about what a collective agreement is and why it is important for them to tell trade unions what their needs are. Another issue is the difficulty for many people to access the Internet. One solution may be that trade unions in companies invite workers to their room to visit the website and do their questionnaire. Other options – but a bit more complicated from a logistical point of view – are to give workers a small questionnaire on paper or to put a big paper in the trade union’s office, where workers can vote.

The Model Put to the First Test in Colombia

Could the model-CBA based on the public sector in Guatemala be of use in other countries around the world? To test this we could start in Colombia, since we were scheduled to meet CGT-officials in Bogotà next.   

The first day in the CGT-offices in Bogotà got off to a very good start. We met Myriam Luz Triana, the general secretary of the Confederation. In the beginning she had some doubts about the possibility of applying one model to more than one country. But when she actually saw the model she agreed that with some changes it could be applied to her country as well. She also liked the idea of different Lego-blocks according to necessities, and she also liked the idea of using an online form to ask workers which are the topics they are more interested in. 

Next day's meeting focused on the private sector. Jorge Espinosa - organization secretary of CGT - first explained in detail how the negotiation process works in the private sector in Colombia. Then he showed how a collective agreement is made, what are usually its parts and what they are about. The discussion made us wonder if and where a sample could be useful. Not so much for big companies, who already have complex CBAs and start negotiating from those, but rather as a sample or guide for trade unions and companies who haven't signed any CBA yet. In general it would be useful to have a sample as a reference document for everyone. The next critical discussion made us see that the sample doesn't have to be a static fixed thing and can be adapted to different sectors. Moreover, it can be a guide for all trade unions to improve the way they structure a CBA. For example, putting maternity under 'General/Social section' and not under the 'Economical' section makes it easier to achieve something in negotiation.

Now the work continues at the Amsterdam WageIndicator Conference!

The model from Guatemala: