Everyone loves a good bargain. Getting more for your money is a no-brainer!

That’s kind of what your employer thinks, too. What if we flipped the scenario and, as a worker, you could get more money? Or more time off, workplace protections, healthcare?

A union can make it happen through the fruitful process of bargaining.

Thanks to legal protections and the power of a unified workforce, unions have a protected ability to bargain with employers for better benefits. When both sides agree on a subject, these new changes are cemented in a contract that must be honored.

Let’s take a peek behind the curtain at what goes on during contract negotiations, and how effective collective bargaining can be.

People sitting around a conference table.
Care of: Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

When does collective bargaining occur?

If a workplace has just unionized, they’ll get to work right away on hashing out a new contract with management. At a mutually agreeable time and place, the union’s bargaining committee (made up of elected union members and advisors) will sit down with company leadership to cover workplace issues like compensation, paid time off, safety, working hours, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and more.

These meetings aren't something employers can put off indefinitely. The NLRB requires both parties to meet and bargain under good faith, which means scheduling negotiations for reasonable times and sending company leaders who can actually make executive decisions.

If your employer is dragging their feet in scheduling meetings with your union, you can take it up with the NLRB to investigate their shady labor practices. Keep your union motivated and engaged to better hold your company's leadership accountable. If workers’ interest wanes, employers may try to avoid negotiations altogether. Don’t let them!

What actually happens in a bargaining meeting?

Both parties are ready to fight for the best possible outcome — but employers and the union will have different interpretations of what that entails. So to stay within the golden parameters of good faith bargaining, everyone will need to compromise.

Employers and the union will go back and forth on what they’d be willing to accept through a flurry of proposals. It’s a bit of a dance, and there are different approaches to bargaining effectively. The hope is that both sides can find some middle ground. Maybe the employer can’t promise everyone unlimited PTO, but they’d be willing to offer more vacation days and ramp up their work-from-home policy. See how compromise can lead to improvements?

Negotiations can take a while. Don’t be surprised if your union rep is stuck in meetings for weeks, months or even a year. As your grandparents would say, good things come to those who wait. And you’re about to get a whole lot of good things.

If negotiations are taking way too long, workers can apply pressure on their employer through strikes or walkouts. Thanks to union protection, workers can’t be permanently replaced if their strike adheres to NLRB rules. It’s a group decision to strike — legally or illegally — and everyone gets a vote.

What if nobody agrees on a new contract?

This can happen! Thankfully, there are procedures in place to ensure workers don’t come away empty-handed from the bargaining table.

When the union and employer can’t agree, it's called an impasse. Basically, an impasse is a fancy-looking word that means, “the employers throw up their hands and say their last proposal stands.”

If that last proposal was bogus, the union can call their friends at the NLRB to investigate. The Bureau will take stock of the negotiations to date and make a ruling on if both sides have been operating under good faith. If they find that the employer has just been uncooperative, they’ll send them right back to the negotiation table.

A crowd lifts its hands up in celebration
Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash

Finally, something we can all agree on!

Eventually, union representatives and management will emerge from a stuffy conference room or packed Zoom meeting with a tentative new contract chock full of workplace improvements.

The only thing standing in the way of the proposed contract becoming official is majority approval from the union. It’s important that most, if not all, union members like the new policies and think they’re fair.

Unions are democratic institutions, don't forget. In one big meeting, union members vote on if they’d like to ratify the contract.

Life after the new contract

Contracts aren’t meant to last forever. That’s a good thing!

When a contract is coming up on its expiration date, that doesn’t mean all those cushy new benefits are thrown out the window. The old contract’s rules will typically stay in place as the bargaining committee and employer meets back at the negotiation table to create an updated contract, usually, two months before the original contract expires.

What if workers have an issue they want to address before their contract expires? Does that mean everyone has to wait a couple of years before enacting change? No! That would take forever and be really annoying. That’s where reopener clauses can come into play.

Instead of opening up the entire contract up for a chaotic renegotiation, reopener clauses are typically hyper-specific and pertain to only certain parts of the contract. So if an issue around salary comes up, the union can ask to revisit the contract — but only the issues around compensation. This keeps the conversation focused and allows everyone to avoid a nightmare scenario where negotiations start from square one.

With a union, workers can yield a lot of power. Thanks to collective bargaining, you can have a say in fighting for a better quality of life — at work and at home.

That’s what we’d call a good bargain.