What Are Labor Negotiations Like?

Labor negotiations are like snow flakes – no two are alike. There are many factors that go into making up labor negotiations that a blanket “what are labor negotiations like” is difficult to define. The employer’s level of resistance to the union, the union’s level of understanding the employer’s business, the negotiators’ personalities on both sides, and the bargaining committee employees’ ability to understand their role in the process all blend together to define what labor negotiations are like.

First contract bargaining is much different from successor bargaining. In first contract bargaining, the parties are just coming off of a campaign and election. The union is proud of its win and the employees often feel overly empowered. Conversely, the employer is upset and jaded that the company must bargain with the union. These polar opposite attitudes usually take some time to get over. When negotiating successor agreements, the more agreements companies negotiate, the less confrontational they usually become because the parties have learned how to work together, the employer has accepted the union’s presence in the workplace, and the union more thoroughly understands the employer’s business.

While attitudes play a major part of labor negotiations, all negotiations have certain activities and appearance. For example each party literally does sit on its own side of the table. Negotiations usually begin on the first day with setting ground rules. These rules involve such things as how long bargaining sessions will last, on what dates will they occur (bargaining can last weeks or months, but rarely occurs on successive days for that amount of time), whether the bargaining unit members will be paid for their attendance at the table – employers are required to allow employees who are on the bargaining committee time off from work, but that time does not have to be paid time off. 

Once the ground rules are out of the way, either side will provide an opening written proposal to the other side or both sides provide simultaneous opening proposals. The parties discuss the proposals at the table, explain the proposals, ask questions to clarify ambiguities or motive, and then separate into different rooms. This separation is called “caucusing” and provides an opportunity for each side to discuss the proposals among their own team. The parties can either reconvene and ask additional questions, or reconvene to exchange additional proposals.

In a nutshell, this process occurs until each clause of the collective bargaining agreement is agreed upon. Of course, negotiations rarely go this smoothly. There is usually blustering, canceled negotiations, a lot of document requests, sometimes unfair labor practice charges, and occasional yelling and violence. Savvy business executives and owners do not attend bargaining sessions because their time is better spent running the company. Instead, those executives and owner retain legal counsel like me, who is trained to cut through the blustering and unproductive bargaining time and hammer out a quality contract on behalf of the employer.


Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio labor lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Matt can be reached by email at
Matt.Austin@Austin-Legal.com or by phone at 614.285.5342.

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