Labor-Management Bargaining

The process of labor-management bargaining has evolved since its beginning in the early years of labor negotiations. Since the parties involved in collective bargaining are negotiating a formal contract that both are to be bound by, there are many stresses and tensions that permeate the process. Most early negotiations were filled with drama and emotionalism.

The struggle has continued today to move toward a more rational process, whereby negotiations are conducted and settled on the facts and more concrete, quantitative arguments. In pursuit of this goal, there are strategies and tactics that can be utilized by both management and unionized labor in order to facilitate a more reasonable contract negotiation. The most beneficial tactics-setting reasonable goals, and researching facts-are employed before the negotiations even begin.

First of all, in order to bargain better, it is important to understand just what collective bargaining is. James P. Begin and Edwin F. Beal define collective bargaining as part of an Industrial Relations System. The system of relations consists of: (1) the people who head the organizations that provide goods and services to society, (2) the people who do the work, and (3) the governmental organizations that maintain the society. “Under capitalism, workers are relatively free to sell their own labor and withhold it at will (Begin, James P., Beal, Edwin F., 3).”

This forms a free-will contract in which the employer and employee must decide the terms of employment (Begin, Beal, 3). This provides the basis for the industrial relations system. Before judicial regulations were enacted as a framework for negotiations, the worker and the employer could enter into a verbal contract that would suffice. However, as workers organized themselves into formal labor organizations and elected members to represent them, more formal contracts were needed.

The movement of collective bargaining toward a matter of national policy began in 1935 with the enactment of the Wagner Act. This act pronounced two basic principles: (1) employees were to be permitted to form and maintain labor unions of their own choosing without being subjected to coercion, intimidation, or discrimination by employers; and (2) employers were to be required by law to bargain collectively with labor unions designated by their employees on wages, rates of pay, hours, and other conditions of employment.

The Wagner Act and others, like the Taft-Hartley Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, have provided a framework of law within which the collective bargaining process must operate. The legal regulations extend to both the procedural aspects (the manner in which collective bargaining is to be conducted) and to the substantive aspects (the types of subject concerning which collective bargaining is obligatory and which may or may not lawfully be incorporated into collective bargaining agreements). However, the substantive aspect remains relatively unrestricted by law (Torff, Selwyn H., 4-14).

It is the substantive aspect that leaves collective bargaining negotiations subject to emotionalism, and illogical and irrational behavior. John Dunlop and James Healy have described four ways in which negotiations can be depicted. The first is a poker game, “with the larger pots going to those who combine deception, bluff, and luck, or the ability to come up with a strong hand.” The second is an “exercise in power politics, with the relative strengths of the parties being decisive.” The third, “a debating society, marked by both rhetoric and name calling.” Fourth and finally they noted a better way-if followed-that a negotiation can be depicted. This is a “‘rational process,’ with both sides remaining completely flexible and willing to be persuaded only when all the facts have been dispassionately presented (Sloane, Arthur A.; Witney, Fred; 203).”

Sloane and Witney have stated, “all of these characteristics have marked most negotiations over a period of time. The increasing maturity of collective bargaining implies enlargement of the rational process…” This rational process involves the employee, employer, and union settling on the basis of facts rather than name-calling, table pounding, and emotionalism (Sloane, Witney, 203-204).

Therefore, in order for collective bargaining to become more rational, certain techniques must be employed. Edward Peters has written a guide to better negotiating titled Strategy and Tactics in Labor Negotiations. In this book he provides good strategies for obtaining a more rational negotiation.

The first important step toward better bargaining is to realize the essential nature and purpose of negotiations. In a bargaining conflict, there are three main activities in which each party is involved: (1) attempt to influence each other, the employees, and public opinion by advocating the merits of their respective positions; (2) indicate strength to each other; and (3) explore the possibilities, in terms of each other’s maximum and minimum expectancies, of a settlement without an economic contest, or, at worst, a contest of minimum duration (Peters, Edward, 41). Peters states that sophisticated bargainers often underestimate the importance of good preparation and presentation of their position because they feel that these are just “window dressing for the harsh realities of economic strength (Peters, 42).” It is true that economic strength is important, but a position reinforced by logic and reason can often exert a crucial influence (Peters, 42).

Another step toward better negotiations is preparation and the setting of realistic goals. Peters states that “the practicality or impracticality of a collective bargaining goal is a matter of foresight, not something to be determined by hindsight (Peters, 60).” An example of this that pertains to management is that sometimes there are items that a union cannot and will not concede. If management does not prepare enough and makes the assumption that the union can and will negotiate on any proposal submitted by management, they risk the possibility of strikes. There are issues over which “a union will prefer to lose a plant in an economic contest rather than jeopardize itself with a larger group (Peters, 60).” The setting of more realistic goals by management could avoid this detrimental result.

In order to set realistic goals, a criteria for realistic goals must be established. Most negotiators, according to Peters, would agree that a realistic goal, to be attained without an economic contest, must be based on the following minimum considerations: (1) has the other party the ability to concede the issue? The employer must be able to concede the issue without serious damage to operations.

The union must be able to concede the issue without serious internal injury, or any danger of disintegrating as an organization, or losing out to a rival union; also without seriously impairing its external relationships in the labor movement, or with other employers; (2) are you warranted, by your strength, in setting such a goal? (3) Is your goal within the bargaining expectancy of the other party? This last point may be disregarded only if you are ready to wage an economic contest for your minimum goal (Peters, 61-62). These criteria should be fully examined before setting any goal or pressing any issue in a labor negotiation. Priorities must be established and ranked in order of impact and importance (Richardson, Reed C., 128).

Even though setting realistic goals help in negotiations, a course of action must be pursued in order to obtain those goals. Prestige plays an essential role in negotiations. Prestige is an intangible quality in the sense that it is a symbol-a symbol of the potential and actual strengths of the parties in all of their relationships. Prestige reflects itself in the relationship of the parties to each other and especially to the workers in the plant. A union’s basic strength lies in the support of its own membership (Peters, 85-86). Other factors that affect during negotiations are sign language, fringe issues, and negotiable factors.

However, the most important tactics take place before the actual negotiations. “Negotiators who approach the bargaining table without sufficient factual ammunition to handle the growing complexities of labor relations…operate at a distinct disadvantage (Sloane, Witney, 213).” Most larger unions and almost all major corporations today have their own research departments to gather data and conduct surveys. Only if both parties research and establish a framework for negotiations can they successfully obtain results within their range of acceptability. With this in mind, collective bargaining can mature to its desired rationality in the management-labor relationship.

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