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The Bargaining Climate

Paul K. Rainsberger

The goals of the union

Although the specific issues in any negotiations will reflect the concerns of the local union involved and its membership, there are general goals that are likely to be present in most union bargaining agendas. For purposes of simplicity, these are discussed below in three broad categories — institutional, economic and non-economic goals. These are not rigid classifications as many issues will overlap the broad categories. They may, however, present a useful method for the evaluation of specific bargaining goals and objectives.

Institutional goals

The status of the union as the representative of the bargaining unit is an important element in determining, maintaining and expanding union bargaining power. Organizational security and the integrity of the union as bargaining representative are two such broad goals. In addition, the voice of the union in the control of jobs and the limitation of management power in the work location are important institutional goals of the union.

Specific issues that may be negotiated under the broad heading of union institutional goals include:

  • Recognition clauses
  • Union security provisions
  • The number and rights of stewards and officers on the job
  • Preferential seniority for union representatives
  • Pay for stewards and negotiators for collective bargaining activities
  • Provisions for union-related leaves of absence
  • In-plant posting of union literature
  • Provisions for union-initiated grievances
  • Limitations on management rights
  • Union participation in capital decisions of the employer.
  • Contract term, expiration and renegotiation provisions
  • Preservation of bargaining unit work

Economic goals

Economic security for the members of a bargaining unit represented for purposes of collective bargaining is a major category of subjects of bargaining. It is important to distinguish between economic security and job security, but both may be reflected in the actual bargaining agenda of the union. Wages and benefits are obvious examples of provisions related to the economic security of the represented workers, but there are many other issues with direct implications for the job and economic security of the membership.

Examples of bargaining subjects related to the economic goals of the union include:

  • Wages or salaries, and the method for payment of wages
  • Protection of wages from the effects of inflation
  • Premium pay for shift, overtime, emergency and related work
  • Pension eligibility and benefit levels
  • Health insurance benefits and the cost of such insurance to workers
  • Other insurance for life, accident and disability
  • Supplements to unemployment and workers' compensation benefits
  • Hours of work
  • Vacation, holidays and leave of absence eligibility
  • Compensation for time not worked.

Non-economic goals

Non-economic items may also be major issues in the bargaining goals of the union. While employers are likely to see an economic impact of virtually all proposals of the union, non-economic items are much more directly related to the conditions under which work is performed that the compensation received for that work. Examples of common non-economic issues in bargaining include:

  • Seniority provisions
  • The application of seniority for movement into and out of jobs
  • Overtime limits and equalization
  • Shift and other work preferences
  • Protection against unjust disciplinary action
  • Grievance procedures
  • Limits on the right of management to direct and control work
  • Work, production and performance standards

The goals of the employer

While the list of potential union goals in bargaining is unlimited, it has been suggested that management has a much shorter bargaining agenda. In recent years, it has become common for employers to approach the bargaining process with detailed proposals covering the breadth of a traditional union bargaining agenda, the fundamental goals of most employers remain relatively narrow.

Control of the means, methods and modes of operatione

Under the unique form of American capitalism, it is often assumed that ownership carries with it the right to control all aspects of the workplace, from the fundamental questions of when, where and whether to invest to the details of individual job performance at the point of production. The question of control is so central to employer goals that the basic obligation to negotiate with a union concerning terms and conditions of employment may be regarded in some quarters as a serious erosion of the rights of ownership. Bargaining goals of a particular employer are likely to be consistent with the strategy of conceding as little control to the union and workers as is possible. Some specific examples of management bargaining goals that directly reflect the central position of control in a bargaining agenda include:

  • Contractual management rights clauses
    Management rights provisions may be either detailed listing of specific aspects of workplace control that are retained by management or they may be reflections of the residual theory of management rights. Under such a theory, management retains all rights that are not specifically limited by other provisions of the collective bargaining agreement.
  • Zipper clauses
    These are agreements foreclosing mid-term bargaining over items not specifically addressed in the collective bargaining agreement. Often, the effect of a zipper clause is to give to management the unilateral right to implement changes in terms and conditions of employment if the contract is silent with respect to such conditions.

Industrial peace and stability

The no-strike clause of a collective bargaining agreement symbolizes a second fundamental goal of the employer in the bargaining process, industrial peace and stability. It is the threat of potential disruption of production that often brings an employer to the bargaining table. The combination of a management rights clause, a fixed-term agreement and a no-strike pledge from the union provides such stability to the employer. A collective bargaining agreement may reflect the price of industrial peace. An employer may be willing to pay a premium in wages and benefits if that premium provides stability and a reasonable level of managerial control.

The right to say "no"

Beyond the management rights and no-strike issue, much of traditional management bargaining is reactive, a strategy of conceding as little as possible to the union in exchange for control and industrial peace. Although in recent years, many management negotiators have come to the bargaining table with comprehensive packages of proposals, these are often consistent with the traditional reaction to union initiatives. Whether management awaits union proposals and attempts to limit its concessions or comes to the table with pre-conceived counterproposals, the goal is often the same — retention of control and assurance of stability at the most acceptable price to the employer.

The bargaining climate

In developing the bargaining goals and strategies of a local union, it is important to remember that not all relationships with employers are equal. The attitude of a particular employer toward the union and the obligation to bargain may range from the very positive to one approaching industrial warfare. Care should be taken not to generalize about the specific objectives of a particular employer based on overall trends. It is far more important for the local union to have a clear understanding of how the specific employer regards its obligations in the bargaining process.

Some bargaining situations may be accurately described as open warfare where the employer has yet to concede even the right of the union to exist let alone any right to a voice in the determination of terms and conditions of bargaining. Sometimes, this battlefield mentality is open and apparent, while in other situations the warfare may be subterraneous. Strategies for bargaining in a climate of open hostility are clearly different than will be found in more constructive relationships.

At the other extreme, many relationships have achieved relatively high levels of harmony between labor and management. This may be a matter of mutual toleration where the parties have begrudgingly accepted the right of their adversaries to exist. In such a climate, the parties are likely to enter negotiations with an intent to reach agreement, but the process of getting to such an agreement may be defensive and tentative. In other situations, real labor peace may break out with management accepting both the existence of the union and the right of that union to have a voice in the means, methods and modes of operating the business.

In all cases, bargaining relationships are dynamic. A relationship that is harmonious today could end up being characterized by warfare tomorrow, or vice versa. The challenge for the local is to develop a thorough assessment of the relationship as it exists in the current situation and a strategy for moving that relationship in a desirable direction.