HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)
Whether employers like them or not, unions are a US workplace reality. Central to the union environment is the collective bargaining agreement, also referred to as the contract. Read on to learn more about the ins and outs of CBAs and their associated processes.

What Is a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)?

Collective bargaining agreements fall under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which is a federal statute relating to the rights of employees to engage in unions and to seek union representation in order to bargain over their working conditions. The body that oversees and enforces the NLRA is called the NLRB, or National Labor Relations Board. A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a written contract that exists between an employer and the union representing its employees. CBAs are often referred to by both parties as “the contract;” e.g., “Please refer to the contract for information about paid time off.” The CBA is created after a thorough negotiation process between the employer and the union and covers work-related information such as which staff are eligible for membership, union dues, pay/wages, benefits, disciplinary practices, and other conditions of employment, as well as the procedures employees should follow if they feel their employer has violated the terms of the CBA. CBAs usually cover a set period of time, such as three years, before the parties renegotiate terms.

What Does the Collective Bargaining Process Look Like?

Though collective bargaining processes vary depending on the employer and the union, they usually follow the same general outline: the union is recognized by employees and employer and collective bargaining ensues. A contract is ratified for a specific period of time, after which negotiations begin again.

Union Recognition

Before collective bargaining begins, a union must be “recognized.” In the simplest terms, this means that through one of the following processes, a union becomes the designated labor representative of the employees and the employer must enter into bargaining.
  • Option 1: Recognition via NLRB election. In this case (especially if an employer refuses to voluntarily recognize a staff union), employees seek out a union they want to represent themselves, get a minimum of 30% of all staff to sign authorization cards for the union, and then file an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board. If the election results in a half-plus-one staff vote (meaning at least 50% of staff plus one additional employee vote “yes” for the union), the union becomes the official representative and the employer must recognize the union.
  • Option 2: Voluntary Recognition. Increasingly, some employers choose to voluntarily recognize a staff union. In this case, a union agrees to represent employees, the employees sign union authorization cards, the majority of employees are in favor of union representation, and the employer “recognizes” the union as the official representative of its staff. Thus, collective bargaining can begin.

Collective Bargaining

Once an employee union becomes the authorized representative of an employer’s staff, the employer and the union enter into a period known as collective bargaining, or more simply, negotiations, and both parties agree to bargain “in good faith,” which simply means that the parties enter into bargaining with the intention to discuss the bargaining topics and try to come to agreement. During this period of time, the employer (now generally referred to as management) and the union negotiate on the terms of employment. These terms are often called articles and make up the written text of the CBA. During the bargaining period, employers should refrain from making sweeping changes to working conditions (such as a dramatic change in wages, policy changes, etc.), as this would be a violation of the NLRA. Bargaining areas fall into one of three categories: mandatory, permissive, and illegal subjects.
  • Mandatory subjects are those that impact wages, benefits, and condition of employment. The parties are required, under the NLRA, to discuss these topics.
  • Permissive subjects are those that are not required under the NLRA, but that either party may wish to negotiate on.
  • Illegal subjects are subjects which are generally governed by other laws, and cannot be negotiated (for example, practices that involve discrimination).

Ratification of the CBA

Once negotiations between employer and union are completed and the two parties agree to the terms, the CBA moves into the ratification stage. Ratification is the process by which each party reviews the drafted CBA with its respective group (management generally reviews with the executive leadership team and the union with its members). Union members vote on the drafted CBA; if a majority of members vote in favor, the CBA is considered to be ratified or accepted.

Contract Period

This is the period of time for which the contract applies. Most contracts cover a period of three to five years, depending on the union and the organization or company. During this time, all the negotiated provisions of the CBA apply and both the employer and union must abide by them.

Re-entering Negotiations/CBA Expiration

Renegotiation time frames depend on the individual CBA and are usually spelled out in the language of the current contract. In general, renegotiation begins in advance of the current CBA’s expiration, often by approximately 90 days. In some cases, that time frame might be 30-60 days, or it might be that the CBA can be renegotiated at any point before expiration. If the current CBA expires before renegotiations are finalized, the conditions negotiated as part of the previous contract still apply. In particularly challenging negotiation situations, finalizing a new CBA can take many months or even years.

Benefits of Collective Bargaining Agreements

Many employers are wary of unions. However, good union relationships and clear CBAs can actually lead to greater productivity, increased employee engagement and retention, and more.
  • Employee input and representation. CBAs and the bargaining process are a great opportunity for employees to give feedback and make workplace requests about things that directly impact them. That can create a greater sense of ownership and help employees feel heard. Additionally, CBAs outline the types of union representation employees are entitled to, which can help them feel more supported in stressful situations.
  • Clarity. CBAs provide clarity with regard to employee expectations around the conditions of work. While a CBA doesn’t replace a staff handbook, it contains quite a bit of overlap and helps clarify things. This is especially true for disciplinary, investigative, and grievance procedures.
  • HR support. Believe it or not, a well-written CBA can provide HR with support needed to make clear decisions and hold others accountable without being the “bad guy.” Since the CBA is written in conjunction with the union, there is no single party that made the decisions reflected in the contract. The union can also act as a partner in resolving conflicts instead of the full weight falling to HR.

Potential Challenges Associated With Collective Bargaining Agreements

Challenges often arise during the CBA process or with the actual document itself. Here are a few potential pitfalls to be aware of and some suggestions for navigating them.

The Bargaining Process

Most CBAs take upwards of a year to fully negotiate and finalize, and some can take much longer. It can be grueling, exhausting, and cause tension and workplace strain on all involved. It’s absolutely critical that HR folks have access to their own support throughout the process and develop allies where appropriate. Some processes are more contentious than others, so building good working relationships is the key to keeping things running smoothly. It’s also a good idea to have folks who can rotate into the management negotiations team so others can take periodic breaks from the process. It’s extremely important to devote time to building relationships with the union members and leaders; like it or not, this is a long-term relationship and needs to be built and nurtured. This can happen naturally through the give-and-take of negotiation, especially if your organization is open to hearing the union’s proposals and genuinely considering them.

Contract Interpretation

As above, the key to being able to smoothly navigate contract interpretations and conflicts/challenges is building good relationships. It’s key for HR to be able to work with the union to resolve any issues that come up. By this stage, hopefully some trust and collegiality has been built between the parties. If not, re-prioritize those now. There are many instances where language in the CBA may be open to interpretation, and you’re going to need to consult directly with the union. It’s great to come prepared with your own interpretation and to expect some back-and-forth before coming to agreement. Seek to understand and find common ground.
Grievances are formal processes that outline how the company and the union will resolve any supposed violations of the contract. The process itself should be outlined in the CBA and provide instructions for each party on how to navigate the process, which generally occurs in stages. However, grievances can be time-consuming and costly, so your goal should be to resolve the situation as soon as possible, hopefully at the early (and more informal) stages of the process. Find out what resolution the union is seeking, evaluate if that’s reasonable and feasible, and work from there.

HR’s Role in the Collective Bargaining Process

HR normally plays a central and key role throughout the bargaining process, from start to finish.

Participating in Negotiations

HR plays a central role in the negotiations process and often serves as a member of the management negotiations team. Whether or not HR is directly involved in negotiating, most proposed articles need to pass through HR for review. HR might help educate union members about the regulations related to wages and hours of work, calculate the cost of adding a new benefit, counter a union proposal with its own proposal, and much more.

Providing Information

Unions have the right to request information relevant to their members, including pay data, seniority data, benefits information, certain kinds of financial information about the company, and more. HR is often the keeper of such data and is responsible for collecting, compiling, and providing it to the union.

CBA Interpretation

Once a CBA is finalized, it becomes the overarching guide for how employees work at a company or organization. It is HR’s responsibility to understand the terms of the CBA, all of its ins and outs, and how they apply to various employees and work situations. HR will often reach out to the union directly to ask questions for clarity, workshop a specific scenario and how an article might apply to it, and more.

Resolving Grievances

HR is often the first or central point in grievance resolution. Many times, this can be done informally via conversations with the union and the impacted union member(s). If the grievance progresses to more formal stages or even arbitration, HR will again be instrumental in providing documentation related to the grievance.
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Tammi Burnett

Tammi Burnett

Tammi has 8+ years of progressive HR experience in a variety of industries and settings, including nonprofit and higher education. She believes that doing HR well means being a true partner and collaborator with every part of an organization, and by saying "yes" to creative problem solving wherever and whenever possible (and legal). Her favorite work includes diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); the how and why of hiring and retaining great people; helping to sustain an organizational culture of trust, empathy, and candor; and anything else that prompts employees to say they love where they work. In her free time, you can find her wandering outdoors, studying clinical herbalism, tinkering in the kitchen, dismantling the patriarchy and white supremacy, and hanging out with her cat, Emily Dickinson.
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