When workers unionize, things get done.

Not only are employers legally obligated to bargain with unionized workforces for new policies around compensation and internal issues, but they’re required to do it in good faith — meaning they must come to the negotiating table ready to compromise.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, there are some guidelines unions and employers must follow during contract negotiations. These rules help keep things fair, productive and help protect everyone involved.

So, when it comes to collective bargaining, what’s on the negotiating table?

Five people sit around a conference room table
Care of: Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Mandatory subjects

There are a few issues that have to get addressed during contract negotiations. These are subjects that directly affect workers, like wages, paid time off, healthcare benefits, workplace safety, and stipulations about discipline and termination.

Even though these topics might make them nervous, your employer can’t dip out of bargaining over these policies. They’re called mandatory for a reason.

Is there any way to get out of negotiating mandatory subjects? The answer is a little tricky. A union can vote to waive its right to bargain over salary, for example. If the employer is on board with skipping the subject, both parties can move on. Most of the time, employers probably won’t want to bargain on a topic workers aren’t interested in, but that’s not always the case.

Let’s say workers are asking for expanded healthcare insurance, which is pricey. Employers may want to use salary as a bargaining chip in order to increase health benefits but negotiate wages down. In this case, it’s the employer who wants to keep that mandatory subject, well, mandatory. The union doesn't have to agree, but they can't ignore it.

Simply put, workers have the potential to waive mandatory subjects if their employer agrees to it. But if an employer wants to waive any mandatory subjects, they're out of luck.

Why fight for mandatory subjects, anyway?

Units aren’t always required to bargain over mandatory subjects, but doing so can yield great results. We’ve lauded the many benefits of union membership before, and we’re not afraid to do it again. Here’s what collective bargaining can get you:

Higher salaries: When workers want to fight for higher salaries, collective bargaining is a great tool, thanks to the pressure unions can apply during contract negotiations. Even if a company is running low on cash and can't raise wages, workers still have options on the table. We mean that literally: Units can bargain for other forms of compensation, like ownership options, to help pad compensation packages.

Not-so-fringe benefits: According to the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers receive more in the way of fringe benefits. Contrary to what the name suggests, these benefits allow workers to enjoy better health insurance (or health insurance at all), more robust pensions, and extra paid time off.

Increased equity: By bargaining for clear hiring and promotion policies, concrete action to improve diversity and inclusion efforts, and documented wage transparency, unions can address inequality in the workplace. As a result, workers can more equitably develop their careers, decrease bias and improve the overall company culture.

Safety standards: No job is worth risking your personal safety for. Unions can fight for updated standards to ensure every worker can do their job without worrying about their health or long-lasting injury. On a less-scary note, safety standards can even look like increased overtime pay, longer or more frequent breaks during shifts, and better working conditions (hi, Amazon).

Four people sit around a conference room table.
Care of: Hunter Newton on Unsplash

Voluntary subjects

Some subjects may not be mandatory, but can still find their way to the negotiation table. These are aptly called voluntary, or permissive, subjects. The employer isn’t required to bargain over the makeup of the board of directors, just like a union doesn’t have to negotiate how its committees are composed. But if both parties are willing, these subjects become fair game.

Nobody will get in trouble for declining to bargain over a permissive subject. That also means units can’t engage in an NLRA-protected strike over them. Yes, workers technically could still strike over a permissive subject, but they won’t enjoy government protection.

Classifying a subject as permissive or mandatory can get murky. If a union feels like an employer is treating a subject as permissive when it should be mandatory, they can request an investigation through the National Labor Relations Board.

Illegal subjects

There are a few things that just can’t be bargained for during contract negotiations. For example, neither unions nor employers can advocate for discrimination based on gender, disability, age, race, and more. That makes sense! That’s a good rule!

Unions can’t demand that employers become a closed shop (which means they could only hire union workers), or institute a spicy hot cargo clause that prevents the employer from doing business with certain companies.

However, a union can bargain for its workplace to become a union shop, which means new employees are required to join the union — provided the state doesn’t have right-to-work laws. Because collective bargaining helps every worker, this rule requires everyone to pay their fair share in supporting the union.

Drive a hard bargain

Everyone is legally allowed to be tough as nails when fighting for what they want. There’s a lot at stake, and it can be overwhelming. Support one another and check in regularly to avoid burnout.