Preparing for Union Contract Negotiations

When it’s time to negotiate a new union contract, the stress level goes up several notches, and your leaders’ training on maintaining positive employee relations is put to the test. Per the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), you have a legal duty to bargain in good faith with the union, but cooperation doesn’t necessarily mean things will go smoothly. 

Months or weeks before the union contract negotiations begin, there are many steps your organization can and should take to prepare for negotiations with the goal of facilitating contract completion. Advance preparations include everything from forming a negotiating team to establishing a productive employee communication process. You can bet the union is going through extensive preparations on their end because they need outcomes that prove to employees the union is useful and are getting value for the union dues they pay.  

"By preparing in advance and communicating proactively," Robert Moll, Senior Communications Consultant at IRI Consultants, shares, employers are "better prepared to frame the debate, manage their message, and minimize the risk that can occur if negotiations take a turn for the worse."

Assemble a Negotiating Team 

An interesting twist to the negotiation process is that there is no legal obligation to reach a mutually agreeable contract. What is required is that you bargain in good faith, and that can take weeks or months or sometimes a year or more, depending on it goes. One of the first steps you will take is forming a negotiating team, and its members should understand their duties and responsibilities. The typical team will include people like the following.  

  • One or more labor professionals, like a labor law attorney and certified labor relations professional, if one is available 
  • A human resources representative 
  • An executive overseeing operations 
  • A senior financial person who helps with determining the true cost of unionization 
  • A frontline supervisor who has firsthand knowledge of the employee experience and the real-world impact of contract requirements on employees 

With a negotiations team assembled, you are ready to assess organizational and employee needs and convert them into discussion points. 

What to Ask For During Union Contract Negotiations 

There are economic and non-economic items negotiated during union contract negotiations.  

Economic vs. Non-economic Contract Items

The economic items include any items that directly cost the organization and/or employees money. The non-economic items concern mostly issues around management rights and obligations and leadership and employee behaviors. 

For example, financial items are items like the following: 

  • Wage increases 
  • Health insurance, including employee share of costs 
  • Retirement plans, including employer/employee contributions 
  • Vacations 
  • Holidays 
  • Paid leave for a pandemic or other major health events  
  • Reimbursement for the cost of safety supplies 

The non-financial items related actually do have financial impacts, but the specific items are directly related to employee and employer behaviors. They include: 

  • Management rights concerning decisions about things like layoffs, facilities closures, hiring and termination practices, etc. 
  • Work schedules and hours (flexible schedules, hybrid schedules, etc.) 
  • Breaks 
  • Seniority clauses 
  • No-strike clauses 
  • Health and safety policies and procedures 
  • Grievance procedures 
  • Remote and hybrid work policies 

Some of the matters negotiated today emerged during the pandemic. For example, employers and unions now discuss the duration of paid leave for employees for COVID-19 quarantining, shifting workloads when employees are on sick leave due to COVID-19, and how remote workers fit into traditional workplace structures and HR policies.  

There is also the issue of the virus vaccination policy, which is likely to come down to mandatory vs. non-mandatory employee vaccines. You may need to negotiate employer-provided resources for remote workers and specific safety procedures for onsite employees, like paying for all personal protection equipment (PPE). 

union contract negotiating

General Points to Keep in Mind 

When negotiating the union contract, there are some general points to keep in mind.

  • Aim for clearer language in the new contract than is found in the current contract wherever issues or uncertainty have arisen during the term of the current contract 
  • Decide what is reasonable for the organization because the union is likely to ask for more than your organization can provide, i.e., reasonable wages and benefits increases, maximum paid leave, seniority rights, etc. 
  • Decide what you consider reasonable employee health and safety procedures in order to maintain operations 
  • Identify solutions developed to problems that arose during the last contract period and need inclusion as negotiated stronger provisions in the new contract 
  • Consider the impact of changes since the last contract was negotiated, like new facilities added, mergers and acquisitions completed, increased use of contracted or gig workers, etc. 
  • Consider the impacts of new technologies already implemented or will be implemented during the new contract term and how they impact job descriptions and titles, employee classification (wages vs. salaried), employee training needs and performance expectations, etc. 
  • Review the grievance policies and procedures again, looking for potential gaps in employee voice, because unions almost always want to negotiate the grievance process 

This list is just to get you started and give you an idea of the broad spectrum of elements needing an employer-union agreement. Your organization has unique needs that must be addressed. 

Management Strategy for Union Contract Negotiations 

The management strategy for union contract negotiations is based on having an effective and transparent communication system. Everything you do will revolve around keeping employees informed about the negotiation process, the reasons to support the company proposals made to the union, the positive employee-employer relations that exist, the facts about the union and its demands, and more. 

Your management strategy has four basic components: 

  1. Prepare in advance as much as possible to control the narrative.  
  2. Keep employees informed about the specific process. 
  3. Maintain positive employee relations to minimize the risk of a toxic environment developing that impedes the negotiation process. 
  4. Utilize data and other factual information to support reasonable requests for contract provisions. 

Items that Compromise Your Management Strategy

  • Communicate to employees the facts concerning the workplace because union messaging will invariably present information in a way that implies something is true when it’s not, i.e., grievance procedures are inadequate, the employer doesn’t really care about employee welfare, employees are underpaid, the employer will close a plant and people will lose their jobs, etc. 
  • Establish a process for communicating with employees daily to help prevent tensions from building up  
  • Develop and share opinions about contract proposals without threatening or promising anything 
  • Assess existing communication channels, including employee digital communication systems, and make sure all employees are reached, including remote workers, field workers, deskless workers, and part-time workers 
  • Anticipate each critical employee or union issue and prepare a response tailored to managers, workers, and external stakeholders to take control of the agenda upfront 
  • Distribute materials in advance that present facts and Q&As and the reasoning behind the organization’s proposals 
  • Utilize non-partisan third party information in materials because it adds legitimacy to the organization’s proposals 
  • Develop a union campaign website to present the company’s unique voice and include FAQs on the website that to encourage employees to ask questions; it’s a valuable source of information as to what employees are thinking and are concerned about 
  • Do in-depth research, gather data supporting your contract requests, and keep the union negotiators honest. This includes benchmarking job responsibilities and wages for jobs with large numbers of employees by comparing wage rates for local and national public and private employers in the same industry; benchmarking benefits offered, and analyzing the cost-of-living by researching the Consumer Price Index for wage earners and clerical workers; the union will have its own set of data points and analytics. 

Union Contract Negotiations Tips 

Through years of experience and networking, the UnionProof team has developed a deep understanding of the contract negotiations process. Following are some tips we picked up along the way.

  • Prepare for contract negotiations by including the right people for strategy development, i.e., public relations staff, managers, financial professionals, operational leaders, frontline supervisors, and senior leaders.  
  • Train your leaders at all levels on the negotiations process and appropriate responses and behaviors during a contentious process  
  • Assess the negative publicity attacks unions are likely to utilize incorporate campaigns and prepare to head them off with the truth 
  • Give employees a way to share questions and comments throughout the union negotiations process, like a FAQ webpage on the union-focused dark website brought to light; utilize other information resources, if necessary to encourage all employees to participate in sharing, like emails to supervisors, suggestion-type boxes, etc.  
  • Have issue response materials prepared in advance of the start of negotiations to save time. 
  • Research past union and employee issues addressed because it gives a starting point for how the union thinks. 
  • Train your frontline supervisors, as well as higher leadership positions, on the contract negotiations process because they are the ones who will get direct employee questions about things like rumors and potential strikes. 
  • Set up a process for ensuring all training, materials, union-focused website information and posts, responses to FAQs, public relations campaigns, etc., are reviewed by the bargaining team and a labor professional. 
  • Keep the negotiations website up-to-date at all times and promote employee visits to the website. 
  • Immediately correct union misinformation or lies presented to employees to stop rumors and opinions in the workforce from forming based on falsehoods. 
  • For transparency, during the negotiations process, keep employees informed on proposals and tentative agreements to gain their support. 

As can see, the success of the union contract negotiations process is largely dependent on how well your leadership communicates with employees and how well the negotiations team can communicate the employer position on contract items to the union representatives.  

contract negotiations

Union Contract Negotiations Training 

Training your leaders is crucial. Hopefully, you have been training them all along on topics like union behaviors, responding to signs of unionization, and employer and employee rights. Weeks or months ahead of the start of the negotiation process is the time to train them on union contract negotiations. Training your managers and supervisors is essential to managing the contract negotiations in a way that supports business objectives. 

First, refresh the TIPS and FOE rules training because it’s a guide to what the leaders can and cannot say and do. During the negotiations process, the NLRA applies as much as it does any other time. Violating the NLRA will harm the negotiations process, either extending it, complicating it, or stalling progress while unfair labor practices (ULPs) are filed with the National Labor Relations Board. You’ve probably read about contract negotiations coming to a standstill for weeks and months, and often it’s due to ULPs needing resolution.  

Union contract negotiations disrupt your organization in many ways, so one goal is to minimize the disruption and keep employees productive. It is a time of great employee anxiety and uncertainty, and leadership’s consistent messaging and knowledgeable responses are of great importance to preventing things from getting out of control. Robert Moll, Senior Communications Consultant at IRI Consultants, says, “Studies demonstrate that interactive, face-to-face conversations between a supervisor and employee are the most effective communications channel in the workplace. An employer’s communication team can help human resources preview the issues and scenarios managers may face and train them how to communicate effectively during negotiations.

Positive Employee Relations Strategy

Of course, the strength of positive employee relations and maintaining a respectful workplace are major influences on how well union contract negotiations go. A unionized business with high employee engagement is more likely to have a successful negotiations process for the simple reason employees know the employer has long-term employee success in mind.  

There is also the possibility the union could be decertified at the allowed time in the future. The implication is that leadership training in communication and developing positive employee relations should continue even while union contract negotiations training is in progress.  

Don’t Wait for the First Day of Contract Negotiations 

Train your senior leaders, mid-managers, and supervisors on TIPS and FOE, employee communication, NLRA requirements, and maintaining a positive attitude during a time of possible negativity or conflict. These are critical elements supporting a successful union contract negotiations process. Moll, quoted above, and whose insight helped shape this article, also shared that, "A consistent message, driven by employee communications and reinforced by managers, helps support the organization’s bargaining objectives and keep employees focused on the work at hand."

We offer a multitude resources that are available quickly, including eLearning coursesdark website development, custom videos, information tools, digital communication messaging, and a lot more. The key is to get started long before the first day of contract negotiations.  

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.