Collective Bargaining

History of Collective Bargaining
Ever since the birth of the employer-employee relationship, collective bargaining, or the teaming up of employees to negotiate terms with their employers, has existed in some shape or form. Today the public usually recognizes these groups of employers as labor unions – official organizations responsible for maintaining a united front of employee demands regarding hours, wages, benefits, working conditions, health coverage, overtime, grievances and workplace rules. The right of labor unions to gather is protected under the 1st Amendment as a right to exercise freedom of speech in peaceful protest, and guaranteed by additional legislation. Labor unions often loom large in the media, especially in the auto, airline and sports industries. Their methods of collective bargaining are often so effective that any gridlock can shut down entire businesses for costly periods of time. Although unions usually negotiate with a single employer, certain cases have been levied against entire industries, notably the auto and airline industries, where the employees of competing companies may share similar grievances and demands, to provoke an industry or sector-wide change. Once a company and its labor union settle on a mutually acceptable agreement, a final contract called a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is signed and validated for a set period of time.

The earliest labor unions were labeled as criminal organizations, but after their progressive decriminalization throughout the 19th century, prominent socialist Beatrice Webb coined the term “collective bargaining” in 1891.

The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of manufacturing forever with mass production factories, contributing to impossibly long work hours, low wages and dangerous work conditions. Labor unions were formed in response, taking the place of traditional guilds that protected employees in certain trade industries, to take on larger companies with multiple trades operating under the same roof.

In the United States, the formation of the American Labor Union in 1886 was the seminal event in the legalization of collective bargaining, and the 1926 Railway Labor Act, which required employers to bargain with unions, solidified the presence of unions in America. In the early days of collective bargaining, skilled higher-demand laborers often used their skills as bargaining tools while lower-demand manual laborers would assemble and protest in large groups to apply heavy pressure on their employers. Labor unions gradually evolved from these crude organizations, sometimes with criminal ties, into legitimate organizations with both heavy political and corporate weight.

Union Formation and Rights
When a worker pool initially contemplates unionizing, employees must take a vote to come to a group decision. If passed, then all employees are required to join a union upon employment, so the union can maintain its seamless front. In the United States, a union may also charge a fee of 1-2% to represented employees as part of a union security clause. New members are required to agree and abide by the rules of the union, and will be granted the right to vote on issues and elect union representatives. These elected representatives are responsible for drafting a proper statement of demands from the company, and are responsible for the direct negotiations with the company until a settlement can be reached. During these negotiations, which can last for months, union members may offer their input on the terms through their union representatives. The company will also set its demands for employees, which must be met in exchange. Once both sides agree on the final draft, the CBA is signed and set in place, representing a cooperative contract between employee and employer. However, a union and employer can start a strike or lockout, respectively, if terms cannot be agreed upon. This is usually used as a last resort as it adversely impacts both the employees’ pay and the employers’ earnings.

In addition to the U.S. Constitution, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 also protects most collective agreements. The right of labor unions to assemble is also protected internationally by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a “fundamental human right”. The International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work also defines “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining” as an unalienable employee right.

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