Collective Bargaining


Learning Objectives

  1. Be able to describe the process of collective bargaining.
  2. Understand the types of bargaining issues and the rights of management.
  3. Discuss some strategies when working with unions.

When employees of an organization receive their accreditation from the Labour Relations Board and are officially recognized as a union, the process for collective bargaining begins. Collective bargaining is the process of negotiations between the company and representatives of the union. The objective of this process is for management and the union to reach a contract agreement (also known as a ‘collective agreement’), which is put into place for a specified period of time. Once this time is up, a new contract is negotiated. In this section, we will discuss the components of the collective bargaining agreement.

The Process of Collective Bargaining

Negotiations start when each side states its position and presents its demands. As in most negotiations, these opening demands simply stake out starting positions. Both parties usually expect some give-and-take and realize that the final agreement will fall somewhere between the two positions. If everything goes smoothly, a tentative agreement can be reached and then voted on by union members. If they accept the agreement, the process is complete and a contract is put into place to govern labour-management relations for a stated period. If workers reject the agreement, negotiators from both sides must go back to the bargaining table.

In a collective bargaining process, both parties are legally bound to bargain in good faith. This means they have a mutual obligation to participate actively in the deliberations and indicate a desire to find a basis for agreement. A wide variety of elements can be included as bargaining material. Here are some examples of these elements:

Examples of Bargaining Topics

  • Pay rate and structure
  • Health benefits
  • Incentive programs
  • Job classification
  • Performance assessment procedure
  • Vacation time and sick leave
  • Health plans
  • Layoff procedures
  • Weight of seniority in personnel decisions
  • Training process
  • Severance pay
  • Tools provided to employees

The collective bargaining process has five main steps.

Figure 10.3 Steps in Collective Bargaining

Steps in Collective Bargaining

Step 1:

Preparation of both parties. The negotiation team should consist of individuals with knowledge of the organization and the skills to be an effective negotiator. An understanding of the working conditions and dissatisfaction with working conditions is an important part of this preparation step. Establishing objectives for the negotiation and reviewing the old contract are key components to this step. The management team should also prepare and anticipate union demands, to better prepare for compromises.

Step 2:

Parties agree on the timelines and ground rules for the negotiations such as the frequency of meetings and the order with which elements will be discussed. For example, both parties may decide that the compensation issues, often the most contentious, will be dealt with last or first.

Step 3:

Each party presents initial proposals. It will likely involve initial opening statements and options to resolve any situations that exist. The key to a successful proposal is to come to the table with a “let’s make this work” attitude. An initial discussion is had, and then each party generally goes back to determine which requests it can honour and which it can not. At this point, another meeting is generally set up to continue the discussion.

Step 4:

A series of meetings are always necessary for both parties to agree on a collective agreement. This can be a very lengthy process, and it often takes hundreds of meetings to come to an agreement.

Step 5:

Once the two negotiating teams agree on a collective agreement, it needs to be ratified and voted on by the union membership. If the membership does not agree, then the process continues.

Bargaining impasse and pressure tactics

When the two parties are unable to reach consensus on the collective bargaining agreement, this is called a bargaining impasse. This situation is quite common as the interests and objectives of labour and management are often very different.  Take the case of the Federal prison chaplains who were negotiating their first collective agreement to secure better wages and working conditions. The 180 chaplains, from a variety of faiths and spiritual practices, were represented by the United Steelworkers union, and negotiations between both parties had stalled. Each party had access to tactics that could force the hand of the other side. These ‘pressure tactics’, as they are often referred to, are allowed by the law but they must respect certain parameters. They also need to be used judiciously because they can backfire. Labour negotiations are like a chess match, and the repercussion of every move has to be considered. In this section, we describe the various tactical moves available to labour and management.

Union Tactics

Unions have several options at their disposal to pressure company management into accepting the terms and conditions union members are demanding. The tactics available to the union include striking, picketing, and boycotting. During a strike, workers walk away from their jobs and refuse to return until the issue at hand has been resolved. Note that due to the impact of a strike, an employer may wish to hire replacement workers and continue partial business operations. However, some jurisdictions (British Columbia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland) preclude the use of temporary workers. Though a strike sends a strong message to management, it also has consequences for workers who do not get paid when they are on strike. Unions often ease the financial pressure on strikers by providing cash payments, which are funded from the dues members pay to the unions.

When you see workers parading with signs outside a factory or an office building (or even a school), they are probably using the tactic known as picketing. The purpose of picketing is informative—to tell people that a workforce is on strike or to publicize some management practice that is unacceptable to the union. There is a fair amount of solidarity across workers from different unions, and, by principle, many workers, regardless of their affiliation, will typically not cross picket lines. In 2009, approximately 24,000 City of Toronto Municipal Workers, unhappy about wages and loss of the right to bank and cash out unused sick leave, went on a five-week strike. At first, many citizens supported this right, but some of the most noticeable effects of the strike, including the halting of waste collection and the cancellation of summer recreation programming, created widespread concern and negative reactions from the Toronto population.[2]

The final tactic available to unions is boycotting, in which union workers refuse to buy a company’s products and try to get other people to follow suit. The tactic is often used by the Canadian Labour Congress, who often endorses national boycotts. In 2009, for example, they called for a boycott of Old Dutch snack products in support of 170 locked out union workers at their Calgary plant.

Management Tactics

During difficult labour negotiations, management does not typically sit by passively, especially if the company has a position to defend or a message to get out. One tactic available to management is the lockout which essentially means closing the workplace to workers. If you are a fan of professional basketball, you may remember the NBA lockout in 2011 (older fans may remember a similar scenario that took place in 1999), which took place because of a dispute regarding the division of revenues and the structure of the salary cap. Lockout tactics were also used in the 2011 labour dispute between the National Football League (NFL) and the National Football League Players Association when club owners and players failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. Prior to the 2011 season, the owners imposed a lockout, which prevented the players from practicing in team training facilities. Both sides had their demands: the players wanted a greater percentage of the revenues, which the owners were against. The owners wanted the players to play two additional regular season games, which the players were against. With the season drawing closer, an agreement was finally reached in July 2011, bringing the 130-day lockout to an end and ensuring that the 2011 football season would begin on time.[3]

Another management tactic is replacing striking workers with replacement workers — non-union workers who are willing to cross picket lines to replace strikers. As is the case for a strike, replacement workers are allowed in some jurisdictions but not in others.

Working with Labour Unions

First and foremost, when working with labour unions, a clear understanding of the contract is imperative for all HR professionals and managers. The collective agreement is the guiding document for all decisions relating to employees. All HR professionals and managers should have intimate knowledge of the document and be aware of the components of the contract that can affect dealings with employees. The agreement outlines all requirements of managers and usually outlines how discipline, promotion, and transfers will work.

As managers and HR professionals will be working with members of the union on a daily basis, a positive relationship can assist the day-to-day operations and create an easier bargaining process. Solicitation of input from the union before decisions are made can be one step to creating this positive relationship. Transparent communication is another way to achieve this goal.

1“Best Workforces Are in Right to Work States,” Redstate, June 30, 2011, accessed August 14, 2011,

2“Right to Work for Less,” AFL-CIO, accessed August 14, 2011,


Goldberg, D., “Verizon Strike Could Last Months,” New Jersey News, August 7, 2011, accessed August 15, 2011,

Kyler, S., “Division among Owners?” HoopsWorld, August 8, 2011, accessed August 15, 2011,


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