Collective Bargaining

Collective bargaining is an official process and should be treated with caution and professionalism. Know your rights and statutory laws in UK. Read on to know more.
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: August 18, 2022
  • 5 Minutes
collective bargaining of employees in the UK

Have you ever tried to negotiate a pay rise or improvements in working conditions? If so, you know that negotiating as an individual worker can be frustrating. Collective bargaining, in which workers group together and elect a representative to negotiate on their behalf, is often more effective.

Individual workers typically do not hold much in the way of power compared to their employers. When employees engage in collective bargaining, they have more power. But the question is, what is collective bargaining and how does it affect small to medium-sized businesses? 

Read on to find out.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the process of negotiating and updating employees’ terms and conditions of employment. Changes agreed upon during collective bargaining will affect a large number of employees and often represents the desires of the majority of the workforce.

Collective bargaining is an official process and should be treated with caution and professionalism. Often many employees will be personally invested in its outcome. Indeed, collective bargaining can be seen as an opportunity to hear the collective voice of employees, which is essential in ensuring businesses provide competitive and fair working conditions.

Who represents the employees in a collective bargaining process?

Things would get a bit messy if all employees in a business sent their employers an open letter requesting a better pay or pension package. Because these matters are often sensitive and affect a large number of employees, collective bargaining is usually conducted by a recognised trade union.

This dialogue between employers and the employee’s representatives in collective bargaining will seek to match the needs and desire of the trade union’s members with what the company can offer. This usually revolves around the following topics:

  1. Pay
  2. Pensions
  3. Workers’ rights
  4. Health and safety issues
  5. Working conditions

Who chooses the trade union?
Employees will need to decide which union they will join. For many, the union that is ‘recognised’ by their employer will be the obvious choice. This choice is important, as collective bargaining in the UK only tends to occur with unions that are recognised by the employer. Any bargaining that happens with an unrecognised union is purely voluntary on the employer’s part and is risky for both parties.

How does the process of collective bargaining work? 

The process differs slightly from union to union and workplace to workplace, but it typically looks like this:

An issue arises that needs negotiation

This might be a labour, working conditions or health and safety dispute or the need to draft or renew a collective employment contract. Workers and management may also agree to regular meetings to review issues as they arise.

The employer and employee’s representative prepare

Management and workers choose representatives to negotiate for their interests. For employees this is usually their trade union representatives. 

Both sides will review the existing conditions to identify areas for improvement. Union leadership will often survey its membership to determine which priorities are most important in the upcoming negotiation.

Ground rules set

Both parties will agree to the ground rules for the collective bargaining process. This might include things like:

  1. When and where bargaining sessions will take place.
  2. When initial proposals need to be “on the table.”
  3. Who will be involved in the process.
  4. What the timetable of discussions will be.

Negotiating begins in earnest

The two sides will then meet and begin negotiations. This may be proacted with many breaks whilst both parties consider what has been said. Trade unions may need to confer with the employees they represent and may even set up a ballot to vote on proposals. 

An agreement is met (hopefully)

After several rounds of talks, both sides will hopefully reach a tentative agreement. The union will take this agreement back to their members to vote on. 

If management and the trade union cannot come to agreement, the employer may declare an impasse and implement the last proposal anyway. If the union disagrees, they may ballot members to strike. This is where workers refuse to work until an agreement is reached.

The employees will vote in favour of the agreement

In some unions, the agreement cannot be implemented until the members vote on it. Even if the trade union recommends the deal, the members can still vote against it which may lead to more talks.

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What are the pros for employees and employers of collective bargaining?

There are many pros to collective bargaining. These include:

Less disruption to business and the economy (as well as the workers’ careers)

Collective bargaining allows both sides the opportunity to resolve their disagreements, potentially without resorting to strikes, which could be costly to both parties.

Higher pay

While this would seem like an exclusive benefit for workers, higher pay may be better for business as well. Happier workers are generally more productive which can lead to higher profits for employers. 

Saves Time

Collective bargaining typically sets out pay scales, benefits, and other employment conditions for groups of workers. This can save businesses time and effort negotiating contracts on a worker-by-worker basis.

What are the cons for employees and employers of collective bargaining?

A less collaborative work environment

Research has shown that workers in a trade union are more likely to say that they consider their supervisor a “boss rather than a partner.” They are also less likely to say that their supervisor creates a “trusting and open work environment.” This can lead to less collaboration within the workplace and more antagonism between management and staff.  

Fewer jobs

Employees who belong to a union are generally better paid than those who do not. This can lead to fewer jobs, as businesses struggle to pay staff or outsource to cheaper markets.

Less individual choice

The collective bargaining process is necessarily about achieving a good result for the collective, which may occasionally lead to a frustrating result for individuals. In a unionized industry, workers who prefer to work on a different schedule or under different conditions than those agreed upon may find the process and outcomes restrictive.

What if no collective agreement is reached?

The end goal is ‘collective agreement’, where both parties are happy with the changes to the employees’ terms and conditions. But what if no-deal is made?

Well, there is no simple answer, unfortunately. This will depend on the employers and employees. Outcomes might include:

  • A ‘forced change’. Some employers might force a change to working conditions or pay if an agreement isn’t met.
  • Employee strike. Employees might feel so aggrieved by the lack of agreement and choose to strike.
  • Things just go back to how they were. If no agreement is met, then things might not change at all. This can lead to unhappy staff.
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In conclusion

We hope you have enjoyed our guide to collective bargaining. 

For more helpful workplace guides, take a look around our website.

Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)