Since the advent of the industrial revolution, there has been a tension between workers and owners, between labor and management, as laborers seek to improve wages and working conditions and their bosses seek to maximize profits by minimizing labor costs. That tension led to the creation of labor unions, which in turn led to the concept of collective bargaining.
Collective bargaining is a process whereby a group of workers, typically members of a union, negotiate the terms of an employment agreement together, with those terms applying equally to all participants. The collective bargaining process can address a variety of work-related issues, including compensation, benefits, leave, safety requirements, hours, and work-life balance issues.
The goal of collective bargaining is to promote greater bargaining power for workers in labor negotiations. Before the advent of collective bargaining, workers had little clout in discussions or determinations of labor conditions and were frequently exploited by owners and management. With a collective bargaining agreement in place, workers have strength in numbers. They can take collective action to compel employers to improve pay and other working conditions.
A collective bargaining agreement also typically provides greater job protection to union members. Most states consider employees to be at-will, meaning they can be terminated at any time for any reason (except where the termination would violate an employment contract or existing law). A collective bargaining agreement outlines worker expectations and can create a situation where workers may be terminated only for cause.
Proponents of the collective bargaining process contend that it also benefits employers in the following ways:
The National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to engage in collective bargaining. Under the provisions of the NLRA, your employer and your chosen representative (typically a union officer) must bargain in good faith about all terms and conditions of employment until they either come to an agreement or reach an impasse. The NLRA also regulates which tactics (e.g., strikes, lockouts, picketing) each side may or may not employ to further its bargaining objectives. If an existing agreement expires before a new one is put in place, most of the terms of the expired contract remain in effect while the parties continue to bargain. The provisions of the NLRA apply only to private sector employees. Federal employees have limited rights to participate in collective bargaining, and state and local government workers may do so only if their state legislators have passed laws giving them that right.
The NLRA establishes procedures for the selection of a labor organization to represent a unit of employees in collective bargaining. The act prohibits employers from interfering with this selection. Once employees have identified a representative, the parties involved in a collective bargaining process must meet at reasonable times and make a good faith effort to come to agreement on all mandatory issues, such as compensation, vacation time, hours, benefits, and safety precautions. Neither party may refuse to participate in collective bargaining, but there is no requirement that the parties come to any agreement. If, however, an agreement is not reached, the employer may declare an “impasse” and defer to the last offer presented to the union. The union can disagree that an impasse has been reached and ask the National Labor Relations Board to intervene.
The obligation to engage in collective bargaining does not end if an existing contract expires. The parties must still use good faith to try to negotiate a new agreement. Most of the terms of an expired agreement remain in place until a new agreement is reached.
The most common problems that arise in the collective bargaining process include:
When either party to a collective bargaining agreement engages in acts that wrongfully interfere with the process, the other party may look to the National Labor Relations Board for enforcement.
Workers in the United States have the right to form and join unions and to have those unions represent them in collective bargaining with employers. Federal law grants private sector employees the right to engage in collective bargaining. When parties to a collective bargaining process engage in wrongful acts, the other parties to that process can ask the National Labor Relations Board to intervene and enforce compliance.
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