Collective Bargaining and Union Negotiations

Rajiv Shah
Rajiv Shah
Collective Bargaining and Union Negotiations

Collective bargaining, the ongoing process of negotiation between representatives of workers and employers to establish the conditions of employment. The collectively determined agreement may cover not only wages but hiring practices, layoffs, promotions, job functions, working conditions and hours, worker discipline and termination, and benefit programs.

Collective bargaining existed before the end of the 18th century in Britain; its development occurred later on the European continent and in the United States, where Samuel Gompers developed its common use during his leadership of the American Federation of Labor. Collective agreements are probably least significant in developing countries that have large labour populations from which to draw.

Collective agreements are not legally binding in all countries. In Britain their application depends on the goodwill of the signatories. In some countries—including Germany, France, and Australia—the government may require that the terms of negotiated settlements be extended to all firms in an industry. In the United States similar results have been achieved, albeit less formally, by unions that select a target employer in a particular industry: the negotiation of a new agreement with the targeted employer then sets the pattern for other labour contracts in the same industry.

Every year, millions of America’s workers negotiate or renegotiate their bargained contracts. However, some employers seek to undercut existing bargaining relationships and roll back many hard-won contract terms and conditions. Unions continue to fight for the intrinsic rights of working people and restore the balance of economic power in our country through collective bargaining agreements.

What is a collective bargaining agreement?

A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a written legal contract between an employer and a union representing the employees. The CBA is the result of an extensive negotiation process between the parties regarding topics such as wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.

There are three different categories of subjects that are part of a CBA: mandatory, voluntary or permissive and illegal subjects.

Mandatory subjects are those topics required by law and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Those subjects include items like wages, overtime, bonuses, grievance procedures, safety and work practices, and seniority, as well as procedures for discharge, layoff, recall, or discipline.

Voluntary or Permissive subjects may be negotiated but are not required and include topics such as internal union matters and the make-up of the employer's board of directors.

Illegal subjects that would violate a law are prohibited, such as closed shops (when an employer will hire only members from a union) or illegal discrimination.

It is important to note that once a CBA is reached, both the employer and the union are required to abide by that agreement. Therefore, an employer should retain legal counsel before participating in the collective bargaining process.

Nine Key Tactics for Successful Union Negotiations

1. Negotiations revolve around a set of needs driven by a number of employee constituencies.

To understand the different employee groups that create constituencies can help in understanding the future negotiating tactics used in negotiations.

2. Constituent Services—yes, it is like being a member of Congress. HR is about constituent services, with many competing constituencies.

Prior to negotiations there are many opportunities to learn the needs of your staff and score successful outcomes in meeting their needs to be seen, be heard and deliver.

Meeting the needs of your staff/constituents builds a bridge of trust.

3. Laying out the grid of the organizations culture.

When you build upon employee successes you need to celebrate those successes with a broader group, developing a culture focused upon the big picture.

The efforts to celebrate demonstrate success to a broader audience, creates a new set of positive expectations that says when we can work together, we get rewarded together.

4. Formal feedback combined with delivering constituent services.

While you achieve incremental success for your constituents, implement formal feedback mechanisms.

Formal feedback systems like employee opinion surveys also clarify large issues and smaller issues upon which the organization can create action plans, involve staff in the solution, and create more opportunity to create a learning team workplace.

5. The strategic thinking leading up to negotiations.

Using all the constituent data you have collected, paint a picture of what has been changed for the better and what the organizational leaders need from the union.

Meet with your management colleagues to brainstorm the wish list for negotiations and cost them out with finance teams.

6. Internal "horse trading" now begins among management and you are the lead negotiator.

Create a real list of items that you need for meeting the vision/values of the organization.

Rank those items in terms of priority; you have the "must haves," the "these would be nice, but" and the "I can put this out and toss it later."

7. Remember, this is a marathon process, not a sprint.

Your experience in all the constituency building continues during the give and take of collective bargaining—opening proposals are that and subject to change/modification.

The opening proposals, just that, don’t show all your cards, keep some fuel in reserve.

8. Formal negotiations, breakout sessions and back-door communications.

What happens at the table if you reach the inevitable stalemate, go to breakout.

Rework, modify and go back with an alternate proposal, keeping in mind your ultimate needs. Make sure your colleagues are available at quick notice to provide data.

9. Union Membership dues and constituent needs.

All Unions need to sustain their existence through member dues.

In the end the union needs an agreement that they can sell to their constituents and maintain their membership. Remember that they are moved by this need to get to "a deal."

Union contracts?

One of the most important benefits of coming together with your colleagues to form a union is gaining the clarity and security of a union contract. Having one means knowing exactly what is expected of you at work, and what you can expect from your employer in return. A union contract is a written agreement between the employer and the employees that details the terms and benefits in a clear and legally-binding way

How to negotiate a union contract?

But how does a contract get written to begin with? The negotiation process can look slightly different from company to company and industry to industry, but here’s what’s generally involved:

You and your coworkers decide together that you want a contract.

Contracts typically expire after 3-4 years (depending on what length of time you and the company agree on together), so many times negotiations begin when an old contract is getting ready to expire. Alternatively, you and your coworkers could have just organized your workplace and this could be your first time sitting down with the company. All of the employees covered under the same contract are called a “bargaining unit.”

You come together to determine what you want to discuss with your employer.

Most discussions begin by starting with what you have now then building upon it, but you are only limited by what you and your coworkers can dream up together. Items up for discussion during negotiations are anything you want to address in your workplace, including, but not limited to:

  • Wages
  • Healthcare
  • Pensions and Retirement
  • Hours and Scheduling
  • Paid time off
  • Premium and holiday pay
  • Working conditions
  • Seniority and advancement
There are many ways to give input on what should be included in the new contract, including completing surveys, attending union meetings, texting or talking with union representatives, and emailing your local union office.

Meeting dates, sometimes referred to as bargaining sessions, are scheduled.

Two teams are established for the scheduled bargaining sessions, one representing the union members and the other representing the company. These negotiations can often take several rounds of meetings over the course of weeks or sometimes months. On the union side, we call the group representing the interests of all their co-workers at these meetings the “bargaining committee.”

Both sides hear each other’s ideas.

Formal negotiations sessions begin and both the employer and the bargaining committee listen to each other’s ideas and priorities. The process always includes formal discussions with notes taken so there is a record of what was said in case there is a question or dispute later on.

Your union and the company will go back and forth on terms.

During this time, both sides discuss and start to form the language of the contract. The union bargaining committee may request additional relevant information from the company to substantiate any of the employer’s claims, such as the impacts of various proposed changes on profitability. If common ground can’t be found, a neutral third-party mediator may be called in.

When both sides think they have come to a tentative agreement, the new contract is taken to you and your colleagues for a “ratification vote.”

The bargaining unit holds a vote, either in person or via mail. You will always have a say on whether to accept the tentative agreement or not. A contract is not considered to be in effect until the membership has voted to ratify it. Meanwhile, the company’s representatives also take the agreement to their stakeholders for approval.

Members accept or reject the contract.

If the majority of your bargaining unit votes no and rejects the contract, the bargaining committee and the company will typically restart negotiations and continue trying to work out a solution that both sides can agree on.

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