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What is Collective Bargaining?

A union or a similar collective group of employees is usually seen by its members as a way for employees to negotiate and communicate with their employers or management on a more level playing field than if each employee were to approach management individually. In line with this goal, the term "collective bargaining" refers to the actual process in which workers gather, and together bargain or make a deal with management on the key terms and conditions of employment.

Let's Make a Deal

Collective bargaining generally is aimed at making a deal or bargain with management that addresses a wide range of concerns in a particular workplace. This type of deal is a labor contract and is often referred to as a "collective bargaining agreement" or CBA.

Examples of some of the many topics covered in CBAs between management and employees include employee wages, hours, benefits, time off, raises, promotions, and disciplinary issues. However, CBAs also cover a number of additional topics ranging from worker safety to insurance, and can vary depending on the industry or workplace.

CBAs and the Law

Many of the legal issues involving unions are covered by the federal law known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency charged with dealing with labor disputes when they become legal battles, and is also charged with taking enforcement action when violations occur.

In general, under the NLRA ,employees have the right to join unions and collectively bargain. Noteably, however, there are some types of employers and industries that are not covered by the Act. Some examples of these excluded industries include government workers, agricultural laborers, and independent contractors. For those employers and industries to which it applies, however, the NLRA prohibits employers from interfering with or preventing employees from organizing or engaging in activities that relate to organizing or forming a union.

In reality, the language of the law protects a wide range of employee activities and efforts to get together to improve their working conditions or their terms of employment. In other words, the protections afforded by the law are not limited to situations involving unions or face-to-face bargaining.

The "Good Faith" Collective Bargaining Requirement

Both sides of the employment relationship are required to undertake what is known as "good faith" bargaining. This term by its nature is pretty unclear, as evidenced by the large number of cases and disputes that end up with the NLRB involving whether one side or the other bargained in good faith. However, some common threads and generalities can be made about what are definitely not examples of good faith bargaining:

  • Refusing to meet and bargain with the other party;
  • Changing the terms of a bargain (or existing working conditions) unilaterally;
  • Engaging in "sham" negotiations with the other side.

These are just some examples of conduct that would indicate a lack of good faith by one of the parties.

Unions' Duty of Fair Representation

Employees should also be aware that their union has the responsibility to represent its members in a fair and equal manner. This doesn't mean that the union has to do everything that individual members desire, nor act on their every wish. What it does mean, however, is that each member must be treated equally and in a fair manner.

If you feel your rights as a member have not been upheld equally or fairly by the union, there are typically grievance procedures that should be the first avenue to seek relief. If those procedures do not exist or have been exhausted, it may be time to consult with a local attorney specializing in employment law who will be able to advise on the matter, and if necessary, assist with bringing an action with the NLRB or the appropriate court.

No Deal! When Collective Bargaining Falls Short

As noted above, it is not uncommon for disputes to arise before, during, and after the negotiation process. When this occurs the dispute typically ends up in the hands of the NLRB which handles many labors disputes each year. The NLRB investigates claims and makes a determination as to whether further proceedings are warranted.

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