Every union contract is different. Workers decide how issues are addressed and negotiated with the company. Union members decide what makes sense for the them. Contracts are also called Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) or Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs). Contracts are negotiated for a period of time, usually between 1 and 6 years.
Common topics in most union contracts include:
Just Cause (protection against unfair discipline or firing) is one of the most important protections workers get from a union – protection against unfair discipline or firing. It says that you cannot be fired or disciplined without "just cause." It means that a boss has to prove that there was a good reason to fire or discipline you.
Seniority sets how decisions are made when more than one worker wants a shift or job assignment, wants to work overtime (or when no one wants to work overtime), etc. For example, the contract may state that if there are layoffs, the newest workers must be laid off first. Different contracts have different types of seniority clauses.
Pay Rates and Raises The contract will set rates of pay for all workers, including when workers get paid a "premium," for overtime, shift and weekend differential, working in a higher classification, or being on-call. Workers often negotiate for a minimum number of hours of work, so they can't just be sent home with no pay if there's no work. Workers know when and how much raises will be during the contract.
Time Off and Benefits includes what holidays and how many sick and vacation days workers get -- and fair rules for taking them. It can also set an employers' payments to health and welfare and pension funds. Benefit levels may be set by the amount of time you have on the job.
Grievance Procedures makes sure that workers get a fair hearing by setting how problems will be worked out. Usually, grievances are filed when the boss has broken a contract rule, violated your rights under the law, ignored a company rule or procedure, or changed a past practice (what has always been done, if it's a bad change or not done fairly for everyone). Grievances can also be filed for any unfair situation that management has the power to correct, even if there is no contact language, law, or company procedure. When a grievance or discipline cannot be worked out, most contracts say that an independent arbitrator (like a judge) will make a decision which both sides have to live with.
NOTE: File grievances quickly. The contract will have timelines which must be followed. Usually the deadline is a certain number of days from when the problem happened – or when you (or the union) knew about it.
Fair rules for many situations are negotiated so that scheduling, job bidding, vacation bidding, and many other issues are done fairly. Common examples include if a worker bids into a new job, a rule that says that he can go back to his old job if it doesn't work out; a fair system for scheduling, including posting the schedule in advance; how vacations are scheduled; "reporting pay" – a minimum number of hours you must be paid if you are called in to work; posting of empty jobs so that interested workers can bid for them; making sure workers have the equipment and supplies to do their jobs well and safely.
Legal Protections which are also law. These protections are included in the contract because it is often easier and faster to enforce the rights under the union contract.