Labor Unions

Negotiating a Union Contract

Union contracts are a sticky issue for many U.S. employers. We'll tell you how to gain the upper hand when negotiating a contract with a union.

We've all heard horror stories of collective bargaining processes gone awry.

Ideally, union negotiations will go smoothly without major concessions or work stoppages. But if negotiations go off course, your company could be looking at a prolonged negotiating process, a worker strike and tons of negative PR.

Collective bargaining is a voluntary negotiation process. Even though either side could walk away from the table at any time, it's in everyone's best interest to achieve a mutually acceptable agreement as quickly as possible. When the process drags on, the cost to the employer goes up and the likelihood of an acceptable resolution is diminished.

Like any other negotiation, the key to a successful union negotiation is preparation. If you wait until the last minute to prepare for the collective bargaining process, you'll enter negotiations from a position of weakness. Count on the fact that union representatives have done their homework and are ready to present strong arguments to support their demands. As the employer, you'll need to perform similar preparations to hold your ground at the negotiating table.

  • Select a negotiation team. Your initial step is to form a negotiating team. This team will likely be comprised of select company executives and outside specialists who are skilled in collective bargaining, but will not necessarily include the business owner or CEO.
  • Conduct legal & historical review. Once the team has been formed, they will need to brief themselves on the legal issues of the negotiation and the history of the company's negotiations with the union. It may be helpful to streamline this process by including a legal advisor and a past negotiator on the current negotiating team.
  • Evaluate the current contract. The next step is for the team to evaluate the current union contract. The team should enter negotiations with full knowledge of the current contract's strengths and potential vulnerabilities.
  • Identify membership needs. Connect the team with managers and frontline supervisors to discern the issues that are important to union members. If there have been situations that required disciplinary action, arm your team with documentation from HR files.
  • Review supporting material. It's extremely useful to go into negotiations with an awareness of your industry's wage, benefit, and workplace standards. Any data you collect now will be used to support your position later.
  • Know your opponent. Team members should be familiar with members of the union's negotiating team. Be prepared to exploit weaknesses between the union's positions and the opinions of its members.

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