The Negotiator Magazine

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COLLECTIVE BARGAINING INTERACTIONS

Charles B. Craver

Collective bargaining interactions between labor unions and corporate employers constitute a subset of general negotiations, but the underlying legal and relationship aspects make them unique. Unlike typical business negotiations and law suit negotiations that are not regulated by statutory provisions, collective bargaining discussions are mandated and governed by external laws. Private sector bargaining encounters are regulated by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for most workers and by the Railway Labor Act (RLA) for railroad and airline personnel. Federal workers are covered by the Civil Service Reform Act, while state and local government personnel are under state public sector bargaining laws.

Under the relevant statutes, employees have the right to organize and to select exclusive bargaining agents to negotiate collective agreements defining their wages, hours, and working conditions. They may engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. For private sector workers, this gives them the protected right to strike. Although federal workers and most state and local employees are prohibited from striking, several states do permit non-essential personnel to engage in work stoppages. Individuals who engage in a lawful economic strike may not be discharged or otherwise disciplined for such protected activity, but under the Mackay Radio decision of the Supreme Court they may be permanently replaced. After they have been replaced, they retain preferential recall rights and must be rehired as positions become available before outside persons are hired.

Labor unions selected by a majority of workers in an appropriate bargaining unit, which may consist of homogeneous skilled workers or heterogeneous industrial workers, become the exclusive bargaining agent for all of the individuals within that unit. They have the right to demand bargaining over the wages, hours, and working conditions of the affected employees. On the other hand, the NLRA specifically indicates that the duty to bargain does not require either party to agree to specific proposals or to make concessions. They are merely obliged to meet at regular times and to discuss the relevant issues in good faith.

One aspect of labor-management negotiations that is different from many other types of bargaining interactions involves the on-going relationship between the parties. After collective discussions are finished, the parties must continue to deal with each other. Union and management negotiators must continue to meet to resolve disagreements that may arise with respect to the application of bargaining agreement provisions, and employees and managers must work together to produce profitable goods or services if the firm is to be successful. If union negotiators drive a hard bargain that unduly inflates labor costs, workers will be displaced by new technology or have their jobs transferred to lower cost areas of the U.S. or to developing countries like Mexico, China, or India. If the company treats its workers badly, morale will suffer, and good workers may seek employment elsewhere. Employees may also be less committed to firm success, causing a loss of productivity or a decrease in work quality.

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April 2005