This is a question of both strategy and legality, but the bottom line remains the same: the union and management must agree on a raise before it happens.
On the strategy side of things: the first priority for a first contract is winning permanent raises for everyone through a signed Collective Bargaining Agreement. Be transparent with your members as negotiations go on and make sure that their concerns are heard and that their anxieties surrounding compensation are validated. Reassure them that the union is the most effective tool through which workplace change can be won.
Bosses will often use real or promised raises as a wedge issue to break up the trust your union is trying to foster. When they say things like this, they make it sound as if in the past they were planning to offer any given worker a raise, when they almost never would have. If this narrative surfaces as a rumor one day, the boss is almost always gaslighting you.
It’s illegal for management to initiate raise talks with an individual employee during negotiations. Called direct dealing, this is banned to make sure supervisors don’t undermine the bargaining process or try to divide workers up with smoke and mirrors compensation package offerings.
What that means for you as a union member
If you approach your supervisor and try to bargain for a raise, it would be appropriate for them to say something like; "I cannot talk about this because it is a union issue." This is very different from saying; "I can't give you a raise because of the union". If you’re in a union position during bargaining, you may be best served by getting a raise in a contract, not trying to bargain by yourself.
What you should do if management or a member brings individual raises up
Remind management that working conditions - including salary - must be bargained with the union. Let the union know that management approached you with an offer.
Management cannot make unilateral changes to working conditions. Should management want to give someone a raise if, for example, someone gets a job offer elsewhere, they would be legally obligated to approach union leadership prior to making a formal counter. It is up to each union's leadership to decide how to handle individual raises during bargaining. Some committees may decide to allow raises because they don't want to prevent workers from short term gains. Others, however, may not allow raises because it distracts from bargaining. Most workers win the best conditions through a contract - not individual negotiations. Negotiating a contract takes longer than individual negotiations, but it results in larger, more permanent improvements.
The union should stand firm in limiting its engagement in negotiating individual raises. These are time consuming backs and forths that can distract from larger contract talks. Plus, if the union falls into a habit of doing this, it could unintentionally contribute to the existing pay structure inequities management created in the first place. Use this as a rallying point at the negotiating table to push to codify things like transparent salary minimums or maximums and regular increases in a contract. Remind members that individual negotiations haven’t benefited the majority of workers in the past. That’s why they voted for a union!
Things get a bit more complicated when pay raise negotiations were in discussion prior to union recognition, such as annual cost-of-living adjustments. These pay raises may be legal for management to give without notifying the union. During these situations, speak with union leadership and make sure you chart a course that meets your financial needs and keeps the union informed.
Remember, when you’re united you bargain.
When you’re divided you beg.