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Bargaining Techniques

Paul K. Rainsberger

In this section, some of the major techniques and tactics relevant to the actual bargaining sessions with management are discussed. There is no formula for effective negotiations, but there are many broad issues about which the union bargaining committee should be in agreement with respect to meetings with the management committee.

Control of the agenda

Collective bargaining is a matter of power. Power relationships within or between organizations are more than matters of economic position, they are often determined by behavioral or psychological factors. Some understanding of how power is exercised is critical to the union's preparation for bargaining.

Power is in part a function of equality and authority. If one person concedes authority to another, the first person has given the second a source of power. In bargaining, the union has the right and responsibility to deal with the representatives of the employer as equals. While the typical workplace is built on principles of authority and subordination, the bargaining process is not. When union members leave the shop floor to negotiate with the company, they are no longer in a position of subordination to the managerial authority of the employer.

Control of the agenda is an exercise of power. In bargaining sessions with the employer's representatives, the union must not concede control of the agenda to the employer. Control of bargaining sessions may be either explicit or implicit, and the union committee should take care not to lose such control either way. One concrete method for maintaining control of the agenda is to make sure that the union speaks through a single, primary spokesperson. Focusing union power through a single point transmits the appearance of control and power.

How the union organizes its internal work can consolidate or undermine its position of power with respect to the employer. Although there should be a single, primary spokesperson, all work of the committee should be distributed among the committee members in an equitable and rational manner. No power is derived from the presence of someone without responsibility.

The appearance of power is power. If there is internal conflict among members of the union bargaining committee, the sources of that conflict should be dealt with away from the bargaining table. The sessions with management should reflect a unified union position. Do not attempt to resolve internal conflict in the presence of management, but always look for signs indicating a lack of unity on the management committee.

Internal procedures for calling caucuses, reviewing proposals, reaching tentative agreement and communicating among committee members should be resolved prior to the first meeting with the management committee. Each phase of bargaining should be handled in a manner that conveys to the management committee a sense that the union committee is well-organized, unified and participatory.

Ground rules

One method for assuring some level of control over the agenda of bargaining is to make sure that the parties are in agreement over procedural matters that can affect the substance of bargaining. It is common for bargaining ground rules to be negotiated prior to the substance of the collective bargaining agreement, either in preliminary meetings with the employer or at the earliest bargaining sessions. Some of the matters that should be addressed as part of the procedural ground rules include:

  • Time, place and frequency of bargaining sessions.
  • Methods of communications between sessions, particularly when the next session is not scheduled.
  • Release time and payment of wages for members of the union bargaining committee.
  • Methods for maintaining an official record of the sessions, if a joint record is to be kept.
  • An agreement that all agreements are contingent upon acceptance of the entire package.
  • Clarification of the authority of the bargaining committee.
  • Procedures for the exchange of proposals.
  • Restrictions on or procedures concerning external communication about the progress of negotiations.
  • Order of negotiations, including the negotiation of non-economic and economic provisions.


No matter what procedures exist for maintaining an official record of the negotiations with the employer, the union must have its own mechanisms for the recording of all substantive discussions occurring in bargaining sessions. All committee members, with the possible exception of the chief spokesperson, should take notes during bargaining sessions. One member should be given the primary responsibility for maintaining the union record. One of the values of a caucus is to gain the benefit from multiple records. No matter how effective the official recorder is, there will be confusion in the process of negotiations. If other members have taken notes, those members will be in a position to help assure that the official record for the union is complete and accurate. The committee should periodically review the notes to assure that no significant errors or omissions have crept into the record.


Not everything that takes place in discussions with the employer's committee is necessarily rational, but the union should have solid arguments prepared to explain and justify its position on every issue introduced in negotiations. Techniques of argumentation and logic are useful in negotiations for three distinct purposes. One is the ability to explain the proposals to the management committee. The second is to justify the need for the proposed language. The third is to persuade the employer's representatives of the merits of the union's position.

Explanation, justification and persuasion are different concepts. The explanation of any proposal should be a rational and objective discussion of the problems giving rise to the union's proposals. Any proposal put on the table by the union was placed there for a reason. The union committee should be prepared to define the problem that gave rise to the proposal and the solution for that problem put forward by the union. The justification of that proposal goes one step further. Even if the company understands the issue and the solution addressed by the union's proposal, it is important for the union to justify the need for its proposed change in the status quo. Finally, the union must be prepared to persuade the company that the solution put forward by the union is a superior solution to the identified problem than any other proposed change put forward.


An important tactic in the collective bargaining process is the effective use of a caucus, or opportunity for the union to withdraw temporarily from direct negotiations with the employer. A caucus can and should be used in a number of different situations to make sure that negotiations are progressing in an appropriate manner. Some of the major reasons for the union to call a caucus during negotiations are discussed in this section.

One of the most important reasons to call a caucus is to resolve real or apparent conflict within the union bargaining committee. If there are disagreements about issues or tactics within the committee, those disagreements should be resolved away from the bargaining table. Whenever it appears that committee members are advocating conflicting positions, the union committee should call for a caucus. Internal conflict should be resolved away from the bargaining table, not in the presence of management.

A caucus can also be used as a means of regaining control of the bargaining agenda and controlling the pace of negotiations. If emotions get out of hand, a break in the tension may be necessary. If sessions become too chaotic it may be wise to interrupt the flow. A caucus may also be used to increase the pace of negotiations. If a session moves off course into discussions unrelated to the substance of negotiations, a break in the process may be a useful mechanism for refocusing attention.

Whenever management puts a major proposal or counterproposal on the table, the union should take time to review that proposal. Similarly, before the union decides to revise its position on an issue or accept a proposal put forward by the employer, there should be an opportunity for internal review and discussion of that position among committee members. A caucus may also be necessary for purposes of reviewing the record of negotiations on a particular subject.

Occasionally, a caucus is necessary for reconsideration of the union's strategy in negotiations. This may result either from a significant reassessment of the union or company position on an issue or from external developments that can have an effect on negotiations. For example, if a settlement or strike occurs at a different location in the same community or industry, that event could have a bearing on negotiations.


There is no formula for successful negotiations. The union can pursue strategies and employ tactics designed to reinforce its position, but it must also be prepared to adapt those strategies to actual events at and around the bargaining process. The goal, in addition to settlement of the real issues, is to maintain some level of order in a chaotic process. The more the union committee can do to remain focused on the reason for the negotiations and the ultimate goal of settlement, the more effective the bargaining sessions will be.