Skip to page content
Bookmark and Share

The Bargaining Table
by John T. Dunlop

As Professor Barbash has shown, the destiny of the American worker is directly related to that unique U.S. institution — collective bargaining. It is therefore appropriate that the former Secretary of Labor should provide an essay on the evolution of collective bargaining.

The American collective bargaining system embraces at least three characteristics distinctive to industrial relations in the United States. Perhaps the most significant is that our system of industrial relations is highly decentralized. The prevalence of plant and company negotiations grew out of the patterns of organizations among employers and unions scattered across the country. Union and management officials on the local level, being intimately familiar with the issues, were better able to find a position of mutual accommodation. Decentralization has proved to be a great source of strength as it has allowed for greater detail and wider scope in collective bargaining and a much lesser role for substantive governmental rulemaking —legislative or administrative.

A second characteristic is the principle of exclusive jurisdiction or representation where one union serves as the sole representative for all employees in the plant or appropriate bargaining unit. In the early days of the union movement, the concurrent existence of the Knights of Labor and the trade unions, both in the same field, resulted in conflict and divided loyalty. Thus, the AFL became devoted to the principle that in each recognized field of activity, there should be but one union, chartered by the AFL. This practice conforms to the American political tradition of electing single representatives by majority vote, and has served to facilitate the bargaining process for both management and workers by requiring employees to choose among competing organizations or no organization, to accommodate competing interests within the union at the bargaining table, and to establish a priority among competing interests in negotiations.

A third characteristic is the role the law plays in the process. Labor law is primarily concerned with the tactics and procedures of organizing, bargaining, and modes of conflict. Substantive terms and conditions of employment are left largely to private negotiation or determination. The law views this as a private responsibility from which the government should stand apart. While governmental regulation in some areas has expanded appreciably in the last two decades — as in equal employment opportunities, safety and pensions — the negotiating parties continue to have wide latitude. Labor and management have been able to determine their own needs for periodic negotiations.

Within the collective bargaining system, gradual change may be expected to continue in at least four areas: the subjects of bargaining; the structure of bargaining; the legal framework of bargaining; and the role of government in the bargaining process. It appears to me unlikely that the preoccupation with job design and work reorganization, attributed to the interests of a younger and better educated work force, will produce major changes in the organization and management of the workplace. Changes relating to flexibility in hours in some industries, greater choice for workers among fringe benefits, and employee participation in the arrangements for work are not, in my view, likely to be extensive. This is because most employees do not appear to be significantly interested, and the number of managements with special interests in these areas is limited.

An area where continuing evolution may be expected relates to the structure of bargaining, that is: the level at which different issues should be resolved; the range of jobs, territory, and employees to be governed by the agreement; and the relations among the different craft unions bargaining with a common employer. Many long and expensive strikes have grown out of disagreements not primarily related to compensation but to the structure of bargaining.

Another area of central issues within the American industrial relations system is whether significant changes in its legal framework can be made through consensus within the system, rather than only through political and legislative conflict as in the past. The legal framework of collective bargaining and many features of the formal operation of collective bargaining reflect artificial and unrealistic legislation. Many of these provisions have been ignored for practical purposes. Some of these issues, such as the structure of collective bargaining itself, the nature of the obligation to bargain, and the status of work rules (so-called featherbedding), are themselves increasingly subjects of collective bargaining. But there exists the possibility that leaders of labor and management may come to develop the means to meet new needs for dispute settlement procedures, changes in the structure of bargaining, and methods to deal even more effectively with the introduction of technological change and with foreign competition. No issue is more important for the future than the procedures through which the legal framework of collective bargaining evolves.

In the past the government's interest in high employment and price stability has resulted in policies that have directly impinged on bargaining. Lloyd Ulman is probably correct in asserting the catnip effect, which suggests "that incomes policy is well-nigh irresistible to politicians in office." Apart from the government's concern with inflation, it is becoming increasingly involved in areas that affect bargaining. The Department of Labor and the states, for example, administer a variety of programs that directly impinge on the relations between bargaining parties. Occupational health and safety, worker's compensation, and equal employment opportunity are obvious examples.

These programs serve constructive ends and will make major contributions to future improvements in the quality of workers' lives. However, there are limits to which we can seek solutions to social and economic problems in terms of legislation and litigation. The challenge for the Department of Labor in the coming years will be to find ways to supplement the law and regulations through consensus and cooperation, and through greater recognition of the interaction between new initiatives and traditional processes such as collective bargaining.

Since 1965 the volume of American imports and exports has more than doubled. This unparalleled growth is likely to have an increasing effect on collective bargaining and industrial relations in general. The greater the interdependence between America and its trading partners, the greater the influence of international factors on domestic bargaining. Among the pressures on the bargaining system will be: the vulnerability of the American economy to political acts abroad and to change in world aggregate demand; the effect of foreign wage rates and labor market policies on domestic employment relations; and the concern that foreign imports are taking American jobs. The move toward freer trade will ultimately benefit the American economy, although some of these transitional pressures will require adaptation by labor and management.

In recent years, there have been frequent attempts to adapt collective bargaining to new areas such as local and state governmental agencies, and health and education institutions. Questions of exclusive jurisdiction, the appropriate subjects for bargaining, and the role of the strike and arbitration have different implications in the public sector than in the private, and will require considerable innovation. It is too early to predict what the end result will be, but it is clear that labor organizations will have a significant impact upon the management and performance of agencies in the public sector and upon nonprofit institutions.

The proliferation of "near-unions" adds a new dimension to collective bargaining. As the American economy and society evolve, it becomes more organized with various groups banding together to advance their interests as they perceive them. Sometimes these groups resemble and act like unions, and at other times they are quite different. Such diverse groups may be cited as women employees, racial minority groups, beef farmers, gasoline dealers, dentists, tenants, and so on. In Southern California an erstwhile man of the cloth has even tried to organize the clergy. The near-unions tend to include supervisory employees as members, who are more dependent, in higher income categories, and in some cases more responsive to professional concerns than are members of conventional unions. Although the total size of near-unions is uncertain, their combined memberships is certainly greater than two million persons. The point is that parties to traditional collective bargaining often have to deal with such groups in the economic and political arenas; sometimes they will directly compete with the bargaining process.

A final area of concern — related tangentially to bargaining — is the interaction between labor organizations and the intellectual community. Particularly in recent years, the relationship between unions and the universities has been strained. Criticisms by liberal intellectuals of labor leaders and labor organizations have widened the gap considerably. The simple fact is that the labor organizations' view of the workers does not comport well with the romanticized view of the intellectual left. Few intellectuals have an accurate sense of how unions work and consequently have based many of their criticisms on a simplistic understanding of the ability of labor leaders to shape or reflect the sentiments of the rank and file, and this has been a source of friction. The gap is mutually detrimental.

The academic community can offer to unions the same useful interchange that has benefited business, government, and charitable institutions in the United States. Particularly as the issues at the bargaining table become more technical and the relationship between union, management, and government more complex, the intellectual community is in a position to make a constructive contribution towards improving the quality of bargaining.

However, for a rapprochement to occur, intellectuals must acquire a less naive view of the way unions work; it is essential, too, that organized labor take the initiative in searching within higher education for methods of cooperation and points of contact. The American collective bargaining system will continue to live with some tensions. But the system does accommodate and adjust to these conflicts and tensions.

Previous Next