Tips on Conducting Collective Bargaining Negotiations

In Employment Law by Coolidge Wall

This is a difficult time for unions throughout United States. The percentage of private sector employees covered by unions is at a historic low. Even in the public sector, unions are under stress due to straitened economic circumstances facing public sector employers and legal challenges to the union’s right to collect fair share dues.

In spite of this however, a company or public entity which has a collective bargaining agreement and is faced with upcoming negotiations needs to carefully plan if it wants to maximize its chances of improving its position during negotiations. Based on my experience over the last 36 years representing management in union negotiations, I suggest the following steps:


Take the time to fully analyze the existing CBA and craft new proposed contract language which eliminates anything which puts you at a competitive disadvantage or adds inefficiency. Scrub the existing CBA to identify every provision which you want to delete. Of course you won’t be able to successfully negotiate all you desire. But you should try to change everything that gets in the way of your ability to succeed.


Analyze any legitimate objectives or concerns the union might have. For example,

  • Is overtime distributed fairly?
  • Do employees have a legitimate opportunity for promotion?
  • Do employees have a reasonable opportunity for training?
  • Are benefits and pay competitive?
  • Are there any individual goals of the union negotiation team which need to be considered?

Once you know what the other side might legitimately ask for, try to come up with language which meets the unions’ objectives and which does not unnecessarily interfere with your ability to meet your goals. It’s best not to scramble to decide whether to compromise with the union — ideally you will have thought about this in advance and determined what you are going to ask for in exchange.


Ideally, you’ve developed a workable constructive arrangement with the key union leaders over the years. If you haven’t done so, do what you can as soon as you can to create a cooperative working arrangement. Having a drink with the union negotiators after work won’t kill you and it might save you a lot of time and argument at the table. It’s a mistake to passively allow antagonistic relationships to develop. You can’t always control the situation, but it is important that when you sit down to negotiate, to the greatest extent possible, you have a (hopefully mutually) respect for each other.


While you should aim high, understand that negotiation is a mutual process. You are not going to be able, except in extraordinary circumstances to destroy the other side or to force them into a complete capitulation. In most circumstances, the union will still be there after the negotiations and if you grind their nose into the dust excessively, you have created an enemy for the next 2 to 3 years. Half a loaf (or preferably two thirds of a loaf) is usually a lot better than a strike. One caveat is that if there is a real possibility of a decertification election you need to closely cooperate with experienced labor counsel to determine the best negotiation strategy.


Woody Hayes, the former Ohio State football coach back in the 1960’s and 70s, was known for his team advancing “3 yards in a cloud of dust.” Understand that if you are saddled with a very unbalanced CBA, it might take more than one negotiation cycle to get it back into a balanced shape. Remember that if you are in a deep hole because of prior concessions made to the union, and if you don’t achieve all your stretch goals in the negotiation, you still set the stage for when the contract comes up again.


Once you have finished the negotiation and hopefully have a much better CBA with greater management powers, it is crucial that you can train the management team on their new rights and authority. There’s nothing worse than working hard to achieve a good contract only to have the line managers continue to operate under the old pro union terms. Take the time and spend the money necessary to ensure line management is fully aware of their new powers and insist that they exercise those powers once the new contract is in place.

Negotiations are time-consuming and expensive. If you have to go through the process, it is wise to do everything you can to increase the chances that when you come out the other end, you have increased your ability to meet your business objectives.

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