Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.
Unions and Collective Bargaining
Mary works at an airplane manufacturing plant. She's a member of a union, which is an organization of workers who act as a unit to advance their mutual interests and improve the terms and conditions of their employment. One of the most important tools in a union's toolbox is the right to collectively bargain with the company.
Mary doesn't negotiate with her employer on her own. Instead, she's a part of a group of employees, called a collective bargaining unit, that engages in collective bargaining. Collective bargaining occurs when employees are able to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment with an employer as a unit rather than individually. Mary's unit will select a union representative to speak for all of the employees with one voice. Mary's collective bargaining unit will use its power and leverage to negotiate on Mary's behalf for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment.
A law that's near and dear to Mary's heart is the National Labor Relations Act. This law gives Mary and other workers the right to unionize and collectively bargain. If Mary or her union believes her employer is violating the Act, they can turn to the National Labor Relations Board, who is there to make sure that the rights afforded under the Act are honored.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
The main goal of the collective bargaining process is the attainment of a collective bargaining agreement between the employer and the employees, like Mary. This agreement will govern much of the employer-employee relationship, including such things as wages, benefits, hours of work, grievance procedures and other terms and conditions of employment. Now, let's take a look at how the collective bargaining process works.
There are some important restrictions to collective bargaining. First, the company and union cannot enter into an agreement about something that is illegal under federal or state law. For example, a union cannot bargain away Mary's rights under workers compensation law or under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Second, rights and duties imposed by law cannot be waived. For example, Mary's union rep cannot agree to waive an employer's obligations under relevant Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and standards. Mary has a right to the safety and health regulations under OSHA, and those protections cannot be bargained away.
Third, the law allows a bit of legal coercion. Sometimes, one side can be pressured to involuntarily agree to a concession. Each party - employer and employees through the union - can employ certain tactics to involuntarily pressure the other side to a concession. A strike is an example of such a tactic. A strike can be very costly, and the threat of one may compel management to make a concession at the bargaining table to avoid the cost.
Finally, employers can bargain only with the bargaining unit's representative. Mary and the other members of the unit must pick a representative to negotiate with the employer on their behalf. Once the representative is selected, he or she has the sole authority to represent the bargaining unit in negotiations. Mary's employer cannot negotiate with anyone else, and Mary and her fellow employees cannot try to negotiate on their own behalf with the employer.
The union representative and the negotiator for management must follow some basic rules while engaged in the collective bargaining process. Let's take a look.
The parties must bargain over mandatory subjects of bargaining. Mandatory subjects of bargaining include such issues as wages, hours, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment. These are subjects that are directly related to Mary and her work.
Parties are not required to negotiate over permissive subjects of bargaining. Permissive subjects are those issues that are neither mandatory nor illegal, such as the definition of the bargaining unit, internal union matters or the composition of the company's board of directors. Employees and unions can, and often do, negotiate over permissive subjects, but refusing to do so will not violate the law. In fact, it may be considered an unfair labor practice for an employer or the union to demand bargaining over permissive subjects.
The law does not require that an agreement be reached, but it does require that each side negotiate in good faith over the mandatory subject of bargaining until they reach a deadlock. You can think of acting in good faith as acting with sincerity and dealing with the other side fairly.
An employer cannot unilaterally change a term of employment that is a mandatory subject of bargaining if there is a collective bargaining in effect and the negotiations have not become deadlocked. However, if the negotiations become deadlocked, the employer is permitted to unilaterally make the change if it first presents the change to the union for consideration.
Collective bargaining can be time consuming and complicated, so you may wonder why the heck anyone would want to bother? It's all about bargaining power, which is the ability of a party to compel an agreement from the other side on his own terms. In other words, if one side has greater bargaining power than the other, the side with more power can force the weaker side into an agreement that favors the stronger party.
Collective bargaining gives employees, like Mary, leverage to improve their bargaining power. Mary will find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to move an employer to a concession because it's pretty hard for little old Mary to negatively affect an employer. For example, if Mary decides to quit if she doesn't get a wage increase, Mary is pretty much replaceable at a modest cost. Likewise, if a job applicant wants more pay than an employer is willing to pay, there is usually a line of applicants outside willing to take the wage - especially in times of economic hardship.
Now, if employees are able to negotiate together, the employer cannot use a divide and conquer strategy. In other words, it's pretty easy for an employer to force employees to concede if the employer gets to take on the employees one at a time. However, if employees are able to act in unison - as a group - then it's much harder. For example, one employee threatening to walk isn't too big of a deal, but all employees threatening to strike can result in serious economic problems for the company.
Collective bargaining balances the scale and gives employers and employees relatively equal bargaining positions. When parties have equal bargaining power, no one can take advantage of the other, and the chance of a fair agreement for all is much more likely.
Let's review what we've learned. A union is an organization of workers who work as a unit to advance their common interests related to their employment. A collective bargaining unit is a group of employees that bargain as a group with their employer regarding wages, hours, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment in a process called collective bargaining. The end goal of collective bargaining is the collective bargaining agreement.
Collective bargaining is important. It permits employees to work together as a unit to negotiate with employers on a more level playing field. By negotiating as a unit, employees have more bargaining power and leverage at the bargaining table. Equal bargaining power tends to yield agreements that are generally fair for both sides.
There are legal limitations to the collective bargaining process. First, the parties cannot agree to something that is illegal under state or federal law. Second, rights and duties imposed by law cannot be waived by agreement. Third, an employer must bargain with, and only with, the duly selected collective bargaining unit representative.
The collective bargaining process is governed by a few basic rules. The parties must negotiate on mandatory subjects of bargaining, but they don't have to negotiate over permissive subjects of bargaining. The law does not require a collective bargaining agreement to be reached, but it does demand that the parties negotiate over mandatory subjects of bargaining in good faith. An employer cannot unilaterally change a term of employment if it involves a mandatory subject of bargaining unless the negotiations are deadlocked and the union has been presented the issue for consideration.
After this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain what collective bargaining is and identify its end goal
- Summarize the importance of collective bargaining
- Describe three legal limitations to collective bargaining
- Identify some general rules of the collective bargaining process
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