Revised by Douglas Swanson, June 2022
Original author: Paul Rainsberger, JD

It is impossible to do an effective job of negotiations without adequate preparation prior to the earliest bargaining sessions. This section addresses many of the specific tasks that need to be accomplished prior to the first bargaining session with management.

Size and selection of the bargaining committee

The actual size and selection of a bargaining committee will often depend on the constitution and by-laws of the organization, the size and complexity of the bargaining unit and interests of the union and should be reflective of the bargaining unit. There needs to be enough representation on the committee that the tasks of the committee will be accomplished, but not so many people that will lead to difficulties in maintaining unity and order in the bargaining process. Committees with five to seven members are generally large enough to control the work of the committee without overburdening those members. Older well established bargaining units often constitute their bargaining committees or teams based more on custom and cultural norms then on functionality.

Whether a bargaining committee is elected or appointed, there are specific tasks that should be distributed among the members. One person should generally serve as the chief spokesperson for the committee. While that does not mean that other members will never speak, it does help to assure that the union committee is able to present a controlled presence in the bargaining sessions.  This role is most often performed by an officer or staff member, usually because of habit but sometimes specified by the by-laws or constitution. Either will work if the person in the role is confident and proficient in the skills needed to perform the tasks.

In addition to a chief spokesperson, one member should be specifically designated as the recorder or recording secretary for the committee. All members of the committee should be encouraged to take notes on the discussions with the company, but one person should be given major record keeping responsibility, which becomes the official record for bargain for your team.

Additional roles or dues to consider when forming a bargaining committee or team includes a cost-er. Someone who is proficient with Excel who will be tasked with calculating their teams’ economic proposals, and analyzing proposals presented to them. It is important that the parties understand the true economic costs of proposals to avoid grievances and arbitrations over misunderstandings over implementations of previously agreed to provisions during the life of the agreement.  

Depended on the history and culture of the bargaining process it may also be beneficial to have a chair of the bargaining committee or team. The chief spokesperson or an officer may be able to function as the chair as well. If there is going to be a chance that the officer is going to be called out of the room frequently, to deal with phone calls or other problems, or the chief spokesperson is going to be called into the hallway for sidebar discussion very often, then it may be advantageous to have someone else designated to be the chairperson, keeping the committee or team working during those absences. Having a chair also gives the chief or the officer time to be engaged in the conversations, instead of leading them, or to ponder strategy while the committee is working through their tasks. Having a chairperson also provides another leadership grooming opportunity.

Although much of the attention in bargaining is focused on the work of the bargaining committee, there are other functions within the local union that can and often are organized to support the bargaining process. There may, for example, be a secondary level of activists that are charged with the responsibility for providing an effective liaison between the committee and the rank-and-file bargaining supporting committee. Sometimes this group functions as an internal advisory body to assist the bargaining committee or as a communications committee to assure that information reaching the shop floor is accurate and appropriate. In other situations, there may be a committee charged with filling the same role with respect to media and community relations.

It is important to remember that the process of bargaining goes beyond the closed doors of the actual meetings between the union and employer bargaining committees. A local need to develop innovative ways to assure that support functions are addressed effectively. Some form of internal support system, with internal and external facing support building strategies, will almost always be useful.

Personal qualities

There is no litmus test of personal qualities that make a person an effective negotiator. Generally, a union benefits from having a mixture of experienced and new negotiators on a committee, to create a mixed perspective of expectations as well as to share the knowledge, but this is neither essential nor always possible. Experienced negotiators bring to the process the benefit of that experience while new negotiators may contribute innovation and creativity to a process that often becomes stagnant and predictable. It is aways advisable to have someone involved who is willing to say “but, why do we always do it that way”, not as a criticism but to create fresh thinking over doing what’s always been done and how it is been done. There is a time a place for both innovation and cultural habits, asking the question occasionally will help temper the over utilization of either.

Knowledge of conditions of work and the interest of the membership is clearly relevant to effective negotiations. Other characteristics that are often associated with effective negotiators include:

  • Patience, guts
  • Personal credibility, stamina
  • Persuasiveness, objectivity
  • Timing, imagination
  • Tact, self-confidence
  • Flexibility, creativity

Of all characteristics that one can bring to the bargaining process, perhaps the most important is self-awareness and self-knowledge. There is no style or form of negotiations that is correct. If a person understands their own personality and style of interpersonal interactions, that person will probably be able to use that style effectively in negotiations.