Labor 101: What is Collective Bargaining?

The Working Stiff Journal
Vol. 2 #2, March 1999
by Jackie Dana

For some in the labor movement, collective bargaining is the pinnacle of union organizing; for others, it is little more than a layer of bureaucracy that takes power away from unions and the workers as a whole.

Collective bargaining is the process by which a union gains a contract with an employer. Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers gained the legal right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining. Under the provisions of the law, once workers organize and approve a union through an election, the employer is required to meet with union representatives “at reasonable times and confer in good faith with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment,” with the result being the “execution of a written contract incorporating any agreement reached….” Contracts spell out wages and benefits, working conditions, and the security of the union as well as management’s.

The road to negotiating a detailed contract can be very bumpy indeed. Depending on the expected items for negotiation and the state of management-union relations, employers may try to stall proceedings or undermine unions; unions on the other hand, will do everything they can to put pressure on management , with workers wearing union insignia, engaging in demonstrations and pickets, or any other actions that promote and display union solidarity. Leaks to the media may add pressure or encourage public support for one side or the other.

If the terms of a contract cannot be mutually decided upon, an impasse may be declared. At this point employers may test union strength by imposing an old contract’s terms or by continuing operations without a contract. Unions, on the other hand, can file unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Review Board, which if successful will force employers back into negotiations. Unions may also call strikes with the intention of forcing management back to the table. (Future ‘Labor 101’ columns will address strikes in more detail.)

Contracts, once agreed upon, are legally binding for both employers and workers. If terms of a contract are subsequently broken by employers, under grievance procedures set up through a contract workers may take their complaints to shop stewards—union representatives to management. Shop stewards often are allowed to use work time to handle grievances and meet with management to address them. If there is no resolution, a grievance can be brought to an arbitration hearing. Independent arbitrators weigh the information and decide if the terms of the contract have indeed been broken. The decision of these hearings is binding for both the union and the management.

Although the process allows for improvements in conditions and protection against unjust actions by employers, at the same time collective bargaining is not a universal panacea for labor. It entrenches the wage system and the huge gaps that exist between labor and management, in terms of both salaries and rights within the workplace. Collective bargaining is bureaucratic in nature and serves to prevent workers from engaging in more radical efforts to promote their interests. Labor leaders and business owners essentially work in collaboration to devise agreements that maintain a compliant work force. Organized direct action by union members, feared by employers, is the strongest power a union has; contracts usually strip unions of this power. For this reason many contracts contain no-strike clauses, making it illegal to participate in this basic form of direct rank-and-file action while a contract is in effect.

Today we hear much about the need for democracy within the labor movement. Because of the nature of negotiations (and the size of many unions), workers rarely have direct input into contract negotiations. Because of this, union members should elect only those leaders who are demonstrably responsive to their needs and issues; otherwise members may find it difficult to have their voices heard. This introduces an added layer to negotiations. Not only do union leaders have to exert pressure on the employers, but it is vital that union members pressure their leaders not to accept a conservative or incomplete contract.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 excluded all U.S. public employees from the right to collective bargaining. Texas, unlike many other states, has not passed legislation overturned this prohibition, and therefore city, county and state workers—including health care workers in state agencies, public school teachers and university employees—cannot legally engage in this basic right of union membership. Although it is unclear where Texas legislators stand on this issue, some unions err on the side of caution and choose not to fight for collective bargaining rights, lest such efforts alienate conservative members of the Texas House and Senate. Instead of fighting constant battles for wage increases from the legislature, unions should campaign for the right to bargain directly with their employers.

Depending on one’s political perspective, collective bargaining is a viable but not always the ultimate answer to labor’s needs; in the absence of more radical solutions, however, it is a form of power for workers, and is the best chance for them to earn living wages and gain legal protections against unfair labor practices.

The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

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