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Behavioral Factors Influencing Union Bargaining Power

Paul K. Rainsberger

In preparation for negotiations, it is important for union leaders to think in terms of "solidarity" and the "interests of the membership," but it is also important to remember that unions are complex and dynamic organizations for which defining the interests of the membership may be a perplexing task. Solidarity is based not on the definition of a single set of issues in which all are in agreement. Solidarity is built on the basis of an organizations internal capacity to recognize and accommodate many diverse interests. Union bargaining power is based not on the lowest common denominator of membership concerns but on the ability of many diverse groups to recognize and support the goals of others in the organization.

To move toward this level of solidarity, it is important to understand some basic elements of organizational dynamics and group behavior. Bargaining power is a reflection of the internal dynamics of the union as much as it is a function of relationships with the relevant employers. The power of a bargaining committee relative to the employer is directly affected by the capacity of the committee to operate on a solid base of membership support.

This paper is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the principles of organizational behavior and the bargaining process. However, it is designed to provide information on issues that can have a significant effect on a local union's preparation for collective bargaining. Each section will raise questions concerning that preparation and suggest areas that many local unions may wish to pursue in greater detail in their unique setting.

Organizational and institutional framework for bargaining

Not all local unions approach the collective bargaining process from the same scope of institutional power. In some cases, a local may be responsible for all aspects of the bargaining process with the international union filling only an advisory, consultative or oversight function. In other situations, the bulk of the contract may be negotiated at the international union level with a relatively narrow scope of bargaining left to local negotiations. Many locals will find their position between these extremes. There is no single model nor is there a best model for the relationship between a local union and its parent organization. Different bargaining structures exist in different sectors of the economy and in different international unions as a result of historical, economic and other institutional concerns.

It is important, however, that local leadership be aware of the institutional framework within which negotiations take place. No matter where within a particular bargaining relationship the center of bargaining power resides, there will be a significant role for the local union, its leaders and bargaining committee. The challenge to the local is to maintain its focus on those aspects of bargaining that are the responsibility of the local. Little is gained by directing undue attention to matters beyond the scope of the local's responsibility.

Organizational behavior

When individuals are brought together in any social setting, they may collectively evolve into one of several forms of social organization. If those individuals share a common set of values, traditions, beliefs and other characteristics and conditions, there is a strong likelihood that they will function as a very cohesive group. At the other extreme, if those particular individuals have little in common and are thrown together accidentally, it is much more likely that they will function as a mob. Most unions and other voluntary organizations are neither mobs nor cohesive groups. Members of a local union will share many common characteristics but they will also reflect many diverse cultural traditions and value sets.

Mob group
The goal of local leadership is to understand the forces that bring people together within the local union and to build on those common concerns, while at the same time recognizing their divergent interests and traditions. Diversity should be approached as a source of power not as a source of potential divisiveness. In preparation for bargaining, and in other aspects of local leadership, the union can build strategies that move the local away from mob-like tendencies to greater levels of group cohesion.

Preparation for collective bargaining is a process particularly suited to the goal of building greater cohesion within a local union. Workers are brought together in a single labor union by accidental forces. They share the same craft or were hired by the same employer. Once together, however, those workers begin to experience much greater commonality of interests and concerns. They work under similar conditions and are paid similar wages. They spend hours each day in close proximity with each other and are subjected to many common physical and economic risks.

Even though they have much in common, members of a local do not sacrifice their unique differences when coming to work in a common setting. They bring to the body of the union many different social, ethnic, racial, political, cultural, age and gender perspectives. They may identify more closely with identifiable subgroups within the labor organization than with the union as a body. If the leadership of an organization is able to recognize the differences among the members and recognize the range of interests represented in the membership, the collective power of the organization can be directed toward the areas of common concern. The bargaining process provides an opportunity to address a wide range of concerns within a strategy of common interest. If the voices of all subgroups of the organization are heard, the collective voice of the membership is more powerful.

Strategic and tactical planning

One method for taking advantage of both the common and diverse interests of the membership of a local union is to approach bargaining as one aspect of a broader process of strategic planning. Strategic planning is a prospective and dynamic process through which an organization strives to mobilize its resources in a purposeful means of achieving clearly identified goals. Although there are many strategic planning models, the critical elements of a strategic planning process are outlined below.


  • Identification of long-term goals
    Point B on the diagram, above, illustrates the long-term goals of an organization. If an organization has a clearly defined mission, it is important to look to the future to determine major goals that need to be accomplished in three, five or more years into the future. Goals are the major accomplishments the organization needs to achieve in order to fulfill its mission. They should be realistic, dynamic and prospective.
  • Identification of measurable steps to accomplish goals
    Short-term goals or objectives are the measurable steps needed to reach each of the goals of the organization. The objectives and short-term goals of the organization are illustrated by line C on the above diagram. Objectives should be specific, reasonable and measurable. One of the easiest ways to adversely affect the planning process is to define goals and objectives that are beyond the realistic reach of the organization.


  • Assessment of organizational strengths and weaknesses
    The heart of the planning process is an honest assessment of the organization's strengths and weaknesses and the external pressures that will make fulfillment of the mission either easier or more difficult. Strategic planning demands a critical internal assessment of the assets of the organization as well as internal factors that will be expected to impede accomplishment of goals. In the bargaining process, levels of membership support, the relationship between the local and the international, and the experience of negotiators and other officers are all examples of internal resources that need evaluation.
  • Evaluation of external opportunities and threats
    Just as a critical internal assessment is important in the planning process, it is essential to understand the external forces that will assist or hinder the organization's progress toward accomplishing goals and objectives. In bargaining, the economy, the company, other unions, the media and the community are all potential forces that can affect local union bargaining power.
  • Establishing realistic expectations
    Goals and objectives of the union in the planning process should be realistic. With an honest assessment of the internal resources and external forces that affect union strategy, the union should be able to identify concrete accomplishments that are within reach and those matters that would be nice but are probably unachievable. To maintain and build membership support, it is better to be able to demonstrate a capacity to reach the attainable rather than to fail to achieve the unrealistic dreams.
  • Setting priorities
    Establishing expectations and setting priorities among those expectations are examples of the direct relationship between a strategic planning process and the bargaining agenda of the local union. In the context of bargaining, the expectations and the priorities among those expectations are the demands of the union in the bargaining process and the bargaining agenda.
  • Evaluating the results
    The aspect of any local union planning process that is most often overlooked is evaluation. When everything is done, it is important to step back and reassess the planning and implementation. Where the goals met? If so, why and if not, why not? What can be done in the future to accomplish those goals that were not met this time? The planning process is dynamic, so that as soon as any objective is met or delayed, it is important to reassess the overall plan of the organization.

Membership support of and involvement in the bargaining process

Economic security and workplace representation are important goals of the union in the bargaining process. However, one factor that separates the union-represented workplace from the non-union environment is voice. Union represented workers have a right to be heard. For a union to build membership support of the bargaining goals of the local, one of the easiest concrete steps to take is to assure that the voice of the membership is heard.

The bargaining process should include a viable method for membership participation in the definition of goals, objectives and priorities of the local in preparation for bargaining. Although the demands of the union in bargaining should be realistic and attainable, they should also be built on a foundation of membership concerns. Although membership concerns should be reflected in all stages of bargaining, there are four specific aspects of the bargaining process where membership relations may be most critical.

  1. Formulation of demands
    The first level of involvement of the members is in the establishment of goals, objectives and priorities. Locals use a variety of strategies for assuring that members have a voice in the identification of potential bargaining subjects. It is the experience of the members under the existing contract that defines many of the problems that are to be addressed in bargaining. Membership involvement in formulating demands may be formal or informal, but there should be mechanisms in place for those concerns to be raised. There may be institutional goals of the union that do not appear to the membership to be major priorities but are directly related to union bargaining power. A common example is the expiration date of the agreement. If a local is attempting to bargain under an industry pattern, common expiration dates of the various contracts is an important element. Similarly, the relationship between contract expiration and the regular business cycle of the employer may make the expiration date of the agreement a more important issue than many members will understand. This demands some interaction between the leadership and membership. If there are institutional goals, to the extent possible the local will want to educate the membership on their importance to other issues that are on the table and in the minds of the members.
  2. Involvement of members in constitution of the committee
    Some bargaining committees are elected while others are appointed. There is no automatic advantage to either method for the constitution of a committee. However, irrespective of the type of committee exists in a local union, members will be more likely to support the bargaining agenda of the local if they have had an opportunity for a voice in the process. A bargaining committee should be more than representative of the membership, it should be seen by the members as representative. Appearances and reality are not always the same.
  3. Keeping members informed while keeping negotiations private
    The actual bargaining sessions between the company and the union are generally kept in private for legitimate reasons. However, this privacy may, without effective internal communications, create the appearance of detachment from the membership. There is a delicate balance to be reached between the goal of meaningful bargaining sessions and effective communications with the members. In general, the specific progress of bargaining should not be widely publicized, except at times of crisis in bargaining. However, the general status of bargaining will be of great interest to the members. If it becomes necessary to mobilize membership action in times of crisis bargaining, that mobilization should not be a surprise.
  4. Ratification or other support of the agreement reached
    How a union ratifies an agreement reached with the company is a matter of internal union policy. No matter what mechanism is in place for final acceptance of the agreement, formal or informal acceptance by the membership will be an important starting point for the next round of negotiations. The process of negotiating one contract begins as soon as the previous agreement is accepted.

Building an effective bargaining committee

The primary factors for the determination of who will serve on the bargaining committee are the constitution and by-laws of the organization. Some unions require bargaining committees to be elected while others provide for ex officio or appointed service. No matter how a committee is constituted, it is important that the members of that committee remember that their responsibility is to represent all members of the bargaining unit, not just those of a particular subgroup within the local. A person, for example, may become a member of a bargaining committee as a skilled trades representative (either elected or appointed), but once on the committee that member is a representative of the entire membership.

This is important to remember when key elements or subgroups of the membership are not specifically represented on the committee. A bargaining committee cannot include representation from all real or potential subgroups of members. There should be no missing voices on the committee even if there are important groups of members without designated representation.