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Strategic Collective Bargaining: Mastering the Art of Negotiation

Published: Jan 12, 2024

In 2016, the major media companies dominating the film and television industry, including CBS, Comcast, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, and Viacom, reported a staggering $51 billion operating profits. Despite this record profitability, the incomes of the approximately 13,000 writers of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) were declining. 

Recognizing the significant contribution of TV writers to the industry’s success, the Writers Guild of America engaged in collective bargaining negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, representing studios, networks, and independent producers. The result was a new collective bargaining contract that addressed the declining incomes of writers. 

The agreement included increases in compensation and digital residuals for writers, ensuring a more equitable share of the industry’s profits. Additionally, the contract preserved comprehensive healthcare benefits for the Writers Guild of America members, reinforcing their collective bargaining rights.

Evidently, without effective collective bargaining, your members may be adrift – facing stagnant wages, uncertain job security, and working conditions that leave much to be desired. The consequences of not having a strong bargaining strategy can be detrimental to the very fabric of the workforce you represent.

From understanding the nuances of distributive and cooperative bargaining to navigating the legal landscape, this article equips you with knowledge around collective bargaining. 

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a collaborative process where employees, typically represented by trade unions, including public sector employees and private sector workers, negotiate with employers to reach agreements on various aspects of their employment. The goal is to achieve a fair balance between the interests of both parties.

What is a collective bargaining agreement?

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is a document that outlines the terms and conditions of employment, ranging from wages and benefits to working hours and dispute resolution mechanisms. 

Also read: Types of Unions and The Most Popular Union Organizing Strategies

What are the main objectives of collective bargaining?

The main objectives of collective bargaining revolve around fostering a fair and productive relationship between employees and employers. 

Here are the key goals:

  • Improving wages and benefits: Collective bargaining aims to secure better compensation and benefits for workers. 
  • Establishing job security: In an ever-evolving job market, job security is paramount. Through negotiations, workers secure provisions in CBAs that safeguard their positions, providing a safety net against arbitrary dismissals.
  • Enhancing working conditions: From ergonomic workstations to adequate break times, collective bargaining ensures that working conditions are conducive to employee well-being. This not only boosts morale but also enhances overall productivity.
  • Providing a voice for workers: Collective bargaining empowers them by giving them a voice in workplace policies, rules, and organizational changes.
  • Promoting fairness and equality: In pursuing fairness, collective bargaining eliminates discrimination and promotes equal opportunities. This benefits individual workers and contributes to a more just and inclusive society.
  • Increasing productivity: Contrary to common misconceptions, collective bargaining enhances productivity. Addressing workers’ concerns and fostering a positive work environment leads to more motivated employees, increasing efficiency.
  • Resolving disputes: Conflicts are inevitable, but with a well-crafted collective bargaining agreement, disputes can be resolved efficiently. 

Also read: Union Communication Strategies For Internal Collaboration

What are the main types of collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining comes in several types, each with a unique negotiation approach. 


Distributive bargaining

As outlined by Walton and McKersie (1991), distributive bargaining operates on the premise that organizations and their workers share an interconnected relationship despite potentially conflicting interests. Workers rely on the employer for their livelihood, while the employer depends on the workers for their labor. 

Negotiations between the two parties often revolve around finite resources, where gains for one side may result in losses for the other. Both sides enter negotiations with predetermined limits on issues such as finances, resources, workforce, or working conditions. 

If these limits are breached, it may lead to a stalemate, potentially resulting in strikes or lockouts as a means of resolving the impasse.

In a study led by UCLA School of Law professor Russell Korobkin and UCLA School of Law Empirical Research Group director Joseph Doherty, law school students participated in a settlement negotiation simulation focused on distributive bargaining. The simulation involved pairs of students taking on the roles of plaintiff’s and defendant’s attorneys tasked with negotiating a settlement for an age-discrimination lawsuit, based on a real case with a $100,000 claim.

In this distributive bargaining scenario, where both parties had equal access to information about the case and legal standards, the most effective strategy for achieving favorable outcomes was accurately estimating the other side’s bottom line. Negotiators who could precisely gauge their counterpart’s limits were more successful in claiming a larger portion of the bargaining range.

The study also highlighted additional factors contributing to successful settlement outcomes in real-world scenarios. These factors included 

  • Setting ambitious aspirations or targets, 
  • Making assertive initial offers, and 
  • Demonstrating a willingness to pursue legal action if necessary. 

Integrative bargaining

As described by Walton and McKersie (1991), integrative bargaining is a collaborative negotiation approach to establish a framework based on mutual interests between opposing parties. Also known as interest-based bargaining or win-win negotiation, this method generates mutual benefits and concessions for all involved parties. 

Unlike distributive bargaining, where most negotiations happen at the table, integrative bargaining involves significant collaborative work behind the scenes. Each party presents its demands during the negotiation process with the goal of reaching an agreement that satisfies the interests of all parties involved.

Productivity bargaining

After analyzing matched employer-employee data from the Norwegian labor market spanning 2002-2018, totaling nearly 21 million observations, a study concludes that firms with collective agreements exhibit higher productivity.

Productivity bargaining is a negotiation process in which employees of an organization consent to changes aimed at enhancing productivity. In exchange for accepting these changes, employees receive increased pay or other benefits. 

The agreement involves mutual understanding and collaboration between the workforce and the organization to achieve improved productivity while ensuring fair compensation for employees.

Composite bargaining

Composite bargaining occurs when employees engage in negotiations due to concerns about working conditions or policies. The primary objective is establishing a safer and healthier workplace for themselves and their colleagues.

Concessionary bargaining

Concessionary bargaining involves union leaders making concessions, often giving up certain benefits, in exchange for job security. This practice is common during economic downturns or recessions, aiming to ensure the survival of the employee pool and the overall business.

Cooperative bargaining

Cooperative bargaining is characterized by parties aiming to find a mutually beneficial solution. This approach is frequently used in disputes related to technology, equipment, or work terms, where the goal is to achieve an agreement that benefits both sides simultaneously.

Also read: Your guide on how to increase union memberships in 8 ways

Collective bargaining methods

Collective bargaining involves various methods to negotiate agreements between employers and employees, which is crucial for private-sector workers and public-sector employees. 


At the core of collective bargaining, negotiation involves discussions and compromises to reach mutually agreeable terms.


When disagreements arise, a neutral third party facilitates discussions, helping both parties find common ground.

Interest-based bargaining

This method encourages creative problem-solving by focusing on shared interests rather than conflicting positions.


The ultimate show of worker solidarity, a strike is a powerful tool when negotiations reach an impasse.


On the employer’s side, a lockout temporarily suspends work to gain negotiation leverage.

Also read: A Look at the Recent Trends in Union Membership (Categorized by Different Factors)

Collective bargaining laws

Collective bargaining laws establish the legal framework governing negotiations between employers and employees, typically involving labor unions.

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or the Wagner Act

In 1935, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), expressing the United States’ commitment to promoting collective bargaining and safeguarding workers’ freedom of association. The NLRA, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), plays a pivotal role in protecting workplace democracy and grants employees in private-sector workplaces the essential right to pursue improved working conditions and representation without fearing retaliation.

Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft–Hartley Act, officially the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, is a US federal law curtailing labor unions’ activities and influence. Although introduced by a Republican-controlled Congress, it gained bipartisan support.

The Taft–Hartley Act imposed new restrictions on union actions and introduced specific unfair labor practices related to unions. Prohibited practices included jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, certain types of picketing, closed shops, and union monetary contributions to federal political campaigns. 

The amendments also permitted states to enact right-to-work laws prohibiting union shops. The law, enacted during the early Cold War era, mandated union officers to sign non-communist affidavits. 

Despite ongoing opposition, the Taft–Hartley Act remains in effect.

Railway Labor Act

The Railway Labor Act, established in 1926 and later amended in 1934 and 1936, is a US federal law regulating how employees in the railroad and airline industries bargain collectively, emphasizing negotiations, arbitration, and mediation to resolve labor disputes.

Initially enforced by the Board of Mediation, its oversight shifted to the National Mediation Board.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets forth standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment in the private sector and various levels of government. 

Under the act, covered nonexempt employees must be paid 

  • A minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and 
  • Overtime pay at a rate of one and a half times the regular pay for hours exceeding 40 in a workweek.

Equal Employment Opportunity Laws

Ensuring equal opportunities for all, these union laws complement collective bargaining efforts in promoting workplace fairness and inclusivity.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)Prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
Pregnancy Discrimination ActAmends Title VII to prevent discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)Forbids wage discrimination between men and women for equal work in the same workplace.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)Protects individuals aged 40 or older from age-based discrimination.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)Bars discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991Allows jury trials and compensatory and punitive damages in intentional discrimination cases under Title VII and the ADA.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973Prevents discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the federal government.
Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA)Prohibits discrimination based on genetic information.
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act of 2022 (PWFA)Mandates reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, barring undue hardship.

All these laws, in alignment with the principles advocated by the International Labour Organization, emphasize the importance of ensuring that individuals, including union members, can bargain collectively for fair treatment in the workplace, addressing aspects such as union security clauses.

It’s evident that collective bargaining isn’t merely a negotiation process; it’s a catalyst for positive change in the workplace, contributing to the strength of union membership. The showcased case studies and discussions on types of bargaining methods provide valuable insights into the dynamic world of labor relations. Understanding the legal framework, including acts like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Taft–Hartley Act, becomes crucial for navigating this realm effectively.

Feature image: Photo by Anjan Karki

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