What is Collective Bargaining?

What is Collective Bargaining?
Last Updated: December 6, 2023

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) serve an important role in shaping the relationship between employers and employees, promoting a collaborative atmosphere that accommodates both parties' needs and concerns. In this post we will delve into the relevance of collective bargaining agreements, explaining their value in the modern workplace, and exploring the numerous varieties that exist, in this detailed investigation.

What Are Collective Bargaining Agreements?

A collective bargaining agreement is a legally-binding contract agreed between an employer or employer's organization and a labor union or employee representative. It acts as a contract that sets forth the terms and conditions of employment for the employees that the union represents. Collective bargaining agreements are common in a wide range of sectors and industries, from public services and education to manufacturing and healthcare.

Collective bargaining is defined in ILO Convention No. 154 as "any discussions that take place between an employer, a group of employers, or one or more employers' organizations, on the one hand, and one or more workers' organizations, on the other, for determining working conditions and employment terms, governing the relationship between employers and employees, governing ties between employers or their organizations and a workers' organization or groups of workers."

Collective bargaining often addresses a wide range of employment-related concerns, such as salaries, benefits, working hours, job security, and working conditions. These topics are negotiated between the union and the employer, and the final agreement is binding on all bargaining unit employees.

Depending on the industry and company, the scope of a collective agreement can vary greatly. A healthcare collective agreement, for example, may include requirements for staffing levels and patient care, whereas an auto industry agreement may focus on job security and salaries.

Historical Development


Collective bargaining can be traced back to the industrial revolution, when workers faced terrible working conditions and tried to address their problems collectively. The concept expanded over time, and unions became important in expressing workers' interests in discussions with bosses. CBAs are now common in many industries and have become a cornerstone of modern labor relations. Negotiating the Collective Bargaining Agreement

The business or employer's organization typically puts forth its own suggestions and considerations, whereas the labor union or employee representative typically expresses the demands and interests of the workers. Talks on pay, benefits, working conditions, job security, grievance processes, and other employment-related issues may come up throughout the negotiating process.

What is a Trade Union?

ILO defines trade unions as "independent, membership-based organizations of workers formed for the purpose of furthering and defending workers' interests." They represent and bargain on behalf of workers. Unions counsel workers who are frequently unaware of their rights, and they can also bargain with employers to improve salaries and working conditions.

Workers' freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are defined as trade union rights. These rights serve as the foundation for social discourse and industrial relations in order to resolve workplace issues.

Trade unionism (also known as organized labor) began as an organized movement in the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and the United States. Many countries associate trade unionism with the labor movement. Smaller worker associations began to appear in Britain in the 18th century, but they remained sporadic and short-lived for the majority of the 19th century, owing in part to hostility from employers and government groups who despised this new form of political and economic activism.

Related: Collective Bargaining in the current volatile environment - Part 1

Benefits of Collective Bargaining Agreements

Workers' Rights Protection

The protection and promotion of workers' rights is one of the fundamental reasons for the creation of CBAs. These agreements provide a set of principles for the employer-employee relationship, ensuring that employees are treated fairly and equitably. Wage, working hours, and benefit provisions all contribute to a more fair and just workplace.

Dispute Resolution

CBAs frequently feature dispute resolution processes for employers and employees. The agreement's grievance procedures provide a planned and orderly manner to address issues, lowering the risk of strikes or other disruptive actions. This benefits not only the parties directly concerned, but also contributes to overall workplace stability. According to the ILO, in the event that an agreement cannot be reached, conflict resolution techniques ranging from conciliation to mediation to arbitration may be used.

Better Working Conditions

Unsafe working conditions can result in accidents, leave, or other potentially harmful circumstances. Workers choose to safeguard themselves and their jobs by bargaining for better working circumstances such as detailed safety plans, on-site medical personnel, and adequate equipment use training.

Employees have the opportunity to negotiate better working conditions through collective bargaining. CBAs allow employees and employers to contribute to decreasing workplace accident rates by supporting safe working practices and minimizing stress-related illness caused by factors such as working long hours, being bullied, or working in poor-quality settings. As a result, CBAs help to create a positive and supportive work atmosphere.

Improve Employee Benefits

Employees can use collective bargaining to increase their negotiating strength and negotiate better benefits. It is the sole opportunity for employees to band together and bargain for better treatment and remuneration. A collective bargaining agreement lays the groundwork for a firm to provide significant employee benefits.

Financial Stability

Economic elements in collective bargaining agreements, such as compensation scales and benefit packages, help workers maintain economic stability. CBAs aim to reduce income inequality and build a healthier economy by ensuring a fair allocation of economic advantages. Furthermore, the predictability of the agreement's provisions gives a measure of stability for both employers and employees.

Negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement culminate in a clear agreement on minimum salaries, overtime compensation, and benefits like as health insurance, retirement plans, and paid leave. If the employer refuses to negotiate a reasonable wage and benefits package, workers can take collective action, such as a strike, to force the employer to meet their requests.

Improved Productivity

The presence of unions helps to support company growth. Unions contribute to the development of high-trust workplaces in which employees are healthier, more skilled, happier, and better able to handle grievances, all of which lead to a more devoted and productive workforce. This results in lower absenteeism, lower turnover, on-time delivery, and retained/new clients/orders.

Diversity and Equality

Another advantage of bargaining is that it can foster a diverse culture. Diversity influences not only the performers but also the attendance rate in the entertainment sector. Fair representation has an impact on viewing and ratings in the news sector.

CBAs allow for the consistent monitoring of workplace discrimination and this promotes equal opportunities. Union representatives are in a good position to identify instances of prejudice and engage with employers to ensure that anti-discrimination regulations are effectively enforced.

Uniformity and Consistency

CBAs offer a uniform set of guidelines that apply to all employees who are covered by the contract. This guarantees consistency in treatment and keeps employers from making arbitrary decisions

Key Components of a Collective Bargaining Agreement

  1. Pay and Benefits: Minimum wages, pay scales, and techniques for determining compensation are all outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Benefits include health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and vacation allowances are all covered.
  2. Working Hours and Conditions: In order to maintain a safe and healthy work environment, the agreement lays out the typical working hours as well as provisions for overtime and rest periods.
  3. Grievance and Dispute Resolution: Collective Bargaining Agreements have procedures for handling worker-management grievances and conflicts. These conflict resolution tools could include arbitration, mediation, or other established processes that aim to settle disputes in an unbiased and equitable way.
  4. Job Security: To protect workers' interests during times of economic uncertainty or organizational changes, the Collective Bargaining Agreements may contain measures pertaining to job protection, layoffs, seniority rights, and reemployment prospects.
  5. Training and Development: To support employees' professional development, certain Collective Bargaining Agreements include clauses pertaining to training courses, skill-building projects, and chances for career progression.

Types of Collective Bargaining

While there are various approaches to collective bargaining, four common types include:

Distributive Bargaining

Parties to distributive bargaining, commonly referred to as "zero-sum" negotiation, have divergent interests. The allocation of scarce resources, including pay, benefits, and working conditions, is the main concern. Both sides aim to minimize losses while maximizing their personal gains. Competitive and positioning tactics are frequently used in this kind of negotiation.

Because the assets or resources that must be divided are fixed, distributive bargaining is also known as zero-sum bargaining. As a result, all agreements must take this into account.

Sharing a pie is a typical metaphor for distributive bargaining: a pie is a limited resource, and if one person receives more, the other person gets less. In that type of situation, some negotiators may employ unscrupulous tactics, such as being secretive, manipulative, punishing, or deceitful. An antagonistic attitude to negotiating can result in less-than-ideal results. For example, both parties could suppress information that would assist the other, resulting in a less favorable outcome than would otherwise be attainable.

Integrative Bargaining

Also referred to as "win-win" negotiating, integrative bargaining seeks to come to solutions that benefit both parties. The concerned parties work together to pinpoint shared interests and investigate innovative solutions to meet those needs. The goal of integrative bargaining is to increase the share of resources available overall, producing results that are advantageous to both employers and employees.

Compromise and bargaining are prevalent in integrative negotiation, and both parties may have to give up some needs in order to achieve an agreement. Because it leads to a thorough grasp of the issue and what each side requires to be satisfied with the outcome, honesty can also foster successful integrative negotiation.

Productivity Negotiating

This type of negotiating focuses on discussions that aim to increase efficiency and productivity at work. It includes talks about enhancing workflows, applying new technology, and instituting performance-based rewards. The objective is to preserve or improve worker salaries and conditions while achieving higher productivity and competitiveness.

In traditional negotiation, whether at the enterprise or industry level, the union usually takes the lead, demanding greater salaries, fringe benefits, improved working conditions, and so on. Most of the time, after extensive negotiations, the parties reach a compromise on the demands stated and conceded.

Interest-Based Negotiating

Also referred to as "principled" or "mutual gains" negotiating, interest-based bargaining centers on determining and resolving the fundamental needs, issues, and interests of both sides. Problem-solving, attentive listening, and open communication are all part of the negotiating process. Rather than adopting dogmatic stances, the goal is to come to agreements that fulfill the fundamental interests of both employers and employees.

The goal of interest-based negotiations is to establish a mutually accepted conclusion that is advantageous to both parties. Both sides' interests are being served. If a problem does arise, the parties focus on the problem rather than the person. And if they do succumb, it is to objective criteria that both sides can agree on as genuine and fair. The result of an interest-based negotiation is that both sides gain credibility as they create a trusting relationship.

Groups that can Negotiate Agreements on Collective Bargaining

Industry-Wide Agreements

Industry-wide CBAs are negotiated by labor unions and employer groups that represent many enterprises in a given industry. These agreements establish industry-wide standards and conditions, ensuring a level playing field for employers and consistency in labor relations.

Company-Specific Agreements

Company-specific CBAs, as opposed to industry-wide agreements, are negotiated between a particular employer and the union representing its employees. These agreements are tailored to the individual company's specific needs and circumstances, allowing for greater flexibility in handling unique challenges and opportunities.

Multi-Employer Agreements

Multiple employers within the same industry negotiate with a single union or a set of unions under multi-employer agreements. This form of agreement is especially frequent in industries where small to medium-sized companies work together to bargain with a unified voice, giving stability and a collaborative approach to labor relations.

Agreements that are national or centralized

National or centralized CBAs are negotiated at the national level, with key industry unions and business groups frequently involved. These agreements create a wide framework for labor relations by establishing overarching rules that may apply to diverse areas or industries across the country.

Agreements at the regional or local level

CBAs at the regional or local level are negotiated at a more specialized level, addressing the specific demands and conditions of a given geographic area. These agreements provide for greater adaptability in responding to regional economic conditions, cultural differences, and the unique issues that workers in specific locations confront.

Collective Bargaining Negotiation Procedures

The goal of these negotiations is to reach a collective agreement that governs employment terms and conditions. Collective bargaining agreements may also address the parties' rights and duties, guaranteeing harmonious and productive industries and workplaces.

Pre-negotiation Preparation

As with anything else in life, how well you prepare for a task has a direct impact on how successful you will be at that task. It may seem strange, but planning for your next contract should begin the day after you ratify a new one. You must constantly collect information pertinent to your bargaining unit since acquiring as much information as possible will help you secure good contracts for your members.

Pre-negotiation preparation by both parties is characteristic of the collective bargaining process. This entails identifying critical concerns, collecting relevant data, and forming negotiation teams. Understanding the economic, legal, and social backdrop is essential for making educated decisions during negotiations.

It also includes comprehending the issues and the individuals engaged in the negotiations, ensuring open communication channels, establishing a negotiating process arrangement that outlines the parties' expectations of one other at various phases of the negotiation process and writing prospective collective agreement terms and conditions.

Set Up Your Team

Each member must understand and respect the interests of other employees. When communicating with others they must be regarded as unified and representative. Other teams will abuse members' self-service by generating divides among the bargaining unit as a whole if they prioritize their own specific interests over the collective good. These divides erode the group's power so it is important to guard against this.

Ensure that members also understand the role they will play in the bargaining. Ensure that they also understand the formalities and procedures of a collective bargaining process.


Typically, negotiations involve numerous rounds of negotiating. The rationale for the union and management suggestions is expressed. Some contract clauses are largely consistent from contract to contract, while others, such as salary, are negotiated with each contract. Some sections may be modified, and either party may offer a new bargaining issue. The necessary, permissive, and banned issues of negotiating are determined by state law and court rulings.

Representatives from both labor and management engage in conversations to establish an agreement during the negotiation phase. Skilled negotiators negotiate through numerous challenges while keeping both parties' interests and concerns in mind. This stage necessitates effective communication, compromise, and a determination to discover mutually acceptable solutions.

Related: 9 Salary Negotiating Tips For 2023

Ratification of a Contract

When the union and employer teams achieve a tentative contract agreement, they consult with their respective constituency groups about the proposed contract. The union hosts a ratification meeting where employees can ask questions and provide feedback on the proposed contract agreement. Individuals are then asked to vote on the tentative agreement, usually by secret ballot. The contract is accepted or rejected based on a majority of votes cast.

The management team seeks approval from the school board or other governing body. If both sides ratify the tentative agreement, then the parties have a new (or successor) collective bargaining agreement. If the tentative contract agreement is rejected, the teams usually return to the bargaining table and continue to negotiate until they reach a new tentative agreement for a vote.

Enforcement and Implementation

The agreed-upon terms are adopted after ratification, and both parties are compelled to follow the provisions contained in the CBA. Effective enforcement systems, such as grievance procedures and dispute resolution methods, ensure compliance and address any concerns that may occur throughout the agreement's term.

Emerging Collective Bargaining Issues

In today's workplace, new difficulties emerge that have an impact on the collective bargaining landscape. These include the rise of remote work, the gig economy, and the integration of technology. Adapting traditional CBAs to address these evolving dynamics poses challenges that require innovative solutions to maintain the relevance and effectiveness of collective bargaining.

Future Collective Bargaining Trends

Technological improvements, globalization, and altering societal expectations are likely to have an impact on the future of collective bargaining. Data-driven negotiations, virtual bargaining sessions, and AI-assisted decision-making may become standard features of the bargaining process. Furthermore, the quest for social justice and sustainability may result in a greater scope of negotiation, with CBAs addressing broader societal issues.


Collective bargaining is a powerful force in defining the dynamic interaction between employers and employees, fostering collaboration and addressing a wide range of workplace issues. Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), as legally enforceable contracts, play an important role in establishing employment terms and conditions, maintaining justice, and creating a decent work environment.

Collective bargaining's historical growth demonstrates its evolution from resolving harsh working conditions during the industrial revolution to becoming a cornerstone of modern labor relations. The negotiation process entails the exchange of offers between employers and labor unions or employee representatives on a variety of issues, including salaries, benefits, working hours, job security, and working conditions.

Collective bargaining agreements provide numerous benefits, including the protection of workers' rights, dispute resolution mechanisms, improved working conditions, enhanced employee benefits, financial stability, increased productivity, diversity, equality, and the establishment of uniform guidelines. CBAs are also classified as distributive bargaining, integrative bargaining, productivity negotiating, and interest-based negotiating. The negotiation methods include extensive pre-negotiation preparation, team formation, bargaining rounds, and contract ratification. Once approved, efficient enforcement measures ensure that both parties follow the agreed-upon provisions for the duration of the CBA.

Natasha Chimpondah & Nolwazi Mlala
This article was written by Natasha Chimpondah & a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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