Most of the promises contained in a union contract expire on the same date the contract expires, subject of course to the obligation to negotiate before making any unilateral changes to the status quo.  But in some cases, the benefits in a contract can become “vested” so they cannot be taken away even after the contract expires.

A classic example is health insurance benefits for retirees and their dependents, which both state and federal courts have found to survive the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement that spells them out.  A recent decision from the federal appeals court whose jurisdiction includes Connecticut, Kelly v. Rockwell International, confirms this principle.

In anticipation of the possible closing or relocation of a plant in Stratford in the 1990s, the UAW negotiated an “effects bargaining agreement” (EBA) that said that all past and future retirees from the facility and their surviving spouses would receive group medical insurance for life.  Although the agreement expired by its terms in 1997, the promised benefits were continued for almost 20 years thereafter.

When a successor employer (Honeywell) decided to terminate those benefits, the retirees sued.  The court decided that the clear language of the EBA indicated an intent to provide benefits that would vest for life and that nothing in the other labor agreements between the parties gave the employer the right to terminate those benefits.

Further, the court enjoined Honeywell from cutting off benefits even for those who did not retire until after the 1997 expiration of the EBA.  Although that issue was sent back to a lower court for further consideration, the appeals court suggested the fact that those retirees had been provided insurance coverage for many years tended to show an intent to include them in the benefits provided by the EBA.

Although this issue was not addressed in the Honeywell case, other courts have found that a commitment to lifetime insurance coverage doesn’t necessarily prohibit changes in carrier, plan design, or details like provider networks.  In a case involving unionized municipal employees in Waterbury several years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court allowed changes to health insurance plans for retirees and their dependents, as long as the coverage remained “comparable”.