The Negotiator Magazine

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Labor Negotiations

Mary Ellen Shea

Much modern thought on interest-based negotiation is derived from earlier studies of the bargaining process between labor and management. Nonetheless, labor-management negotiations – or collective bargaining – is a unique negotiation process. There are elements of the collective bargaining process that parallel other negotiation situations. These include the triggering of the negotiation process by some conflict or competition, the existence of a relationship, the invocation of prescribed rules or conventions, a process of communication and persuasion, and ultimately a determinative outcome. Each of these elements takes on a different twist in the labor management negotiation.

Triggering A Negotiation: Conflict Or Competition

Most negotiation situations are prompted by the eruption of conflict or competition for resources. This occurs in labor-management negotiations when a group of employees first organize a labor union or when an already organized union seeks to renegotiate a labor agreement.

The move to unionize typically occurs when a conflict erupts in a workplace. It may be the result of an organizational change, a dispute over wages or benefits, or resistance to management styles. The collective bargaining process is more often triggered when an already established union seeks to change (usually improve) the terms and conditions of its contract with the employer. In this case, the union and the employer are in competition for the resources produced by their relationship.


All negotiation situations involve some type of relationship. In preparing for a negotiation, one must always assess the nature of the relationship and whether it is limited in scope or time. In labor-management negotiations, relationship is not simply a factor to consider in one’s strategy, it is the reason for the negotiation. In order to produce any resources to share, labor and management must enter into a relationship in which each understands its role in producing those resources.

In some negotiation situations, one party is dependent on the other. In labor-management negotiations, the parties are interdependent. Although the degree of mutuality may vary, the necessity of each to the other assures that each one enters the negotiation process with leverage and power.

Laws, Rules and Conventions

Most negotiation processes are not governed by laws or rules. Agreements or contracts produced as the result of negotiations are certainly subject to law or rule, but most

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