While internal politics and representation challenges add melodrama to the history of a labor union, they cannot change the primary goal of any labor organization--to better the terms of employment of those it represents. The contracts negotiated by labor unions with management document those terms of employment. Just as labor unions and their locals come in various sizes, so do union contracts.
The four booklets containing the 1976 agreements between the Ford Motor Company and the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) contain more than eight hundred pages. In contrast, the agreement between the Fulton County Typographical Union No. 268 and American Fancier signed on October 19, 1901, is only one page.
The actual text of a union contract may be laden with legalese, such as the Newspaper Contract and Scale of Prices between the Chatham Courier Company and the Columbia County Typographical Union No. 896 effective June 1, 1959, shown below. However, despite the sometimes confusing language, contracts are valuable historical resources, providing insight into the working conditions prevailing at a single plant or within a given industry, and what compromises labor and management were able to arrive at regarding those working conditions.
For example, the agreement between UAW Local 930 and Ford Motor Company's Green Island Plant effective October 2, 1979, provides detailed information regarding certain aspects of working life at the plant, from how many towels will be kept on hand at the plant to spelling out the details of temporary job classifications.
The final contracts reached between labor and management, however, provide only part of the picture when it comes to understanding the interactions between those two groups and the specific concerns each is seeking to address during each negotiations cycle. The contract may reflect prevailing working conditions, but not indicate whether the final terms were more in line with the hopes of management or of labor. For such information the documentation underlying the final signed contract is extremely valuable.