Negotiating and bargaining

Most UNISON branch officers, stewards and safety reps will negotiate with employers at some time. It is how to protect and promote the interests of UNISON members and create fairness and equality at work.

This page, along with our in-depth bargaining guides and training courses, gives you the tools you need for effective negotiating and bargaining with employers.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the process of negotiation during meetings between reps and their employer, often to improve pay and conditions. The collective bargaining process allows workers to approach employers as a unified group.

The aim of collective bargaining is to reach an agreement between employers and workers. Members can contribute to discussions by talking to their reps while negotiations take place.

Workplace bargaining and negotiating is also a golden opportunity to build a strong local union. Claims and agreements are a great way of recruiting new members and getting more members involved in the union.

What does UNISON bargain about?

A group of UNISON reps may form a collective bargaining group to reach an agreement for better pay or changes to pensions, for example. This may happen at either a local or national level.

They may also negotiate over non pay-related issues, such as working hours, planned redundancies or the right to flexible working for carers and parents. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for employers to comply with requests for flexible working, so bargaining may be a useful way to encourage an employer to implement flexible working arrangements.

Recognition agreements

For reps to carry out collective bargaining on pay and working conditions, unions need to be ‘recognised’ by the employer as speaking on behalf of our members. This is usually achieved through a recognition agreement which sets out the procedures for negotiations between management and the unions, and the facilities (such as time off) available to the unions.

Training and support

Negotiating is not always a skill that comes naturally, which is why UNISON provides regular training courses, through the regions, to help support reps and improve their skills in this vital work.

Many branches have negotiating teams made up of branch officers and stewards so you will not normally be asked to conduct a negotiation alone.

The stages of negotiation

The aim of negotiation is to reach an agreement. Negotiation should not be confused with ‘consultation’, which is simply an exchange of opinions between workers and their employer. However, skilful negotiators can turn consultation into negotiation.

Stewards do not normally negotiate alone, but as part of a team with complementary skills.

To start the negotiation process, a UNISON rep or official may write to the employer to raise a claim. They then meet management to present the case.

A series of meetings may follow to discuss the issue in depth. If you attend one of these meetings, it is as important to listen carefully and ask questions as it is to present your case well. Clear, effective communication during negotiation is important as it can help others to understand your point of view.

The negotiation process tends to follow a standard pattern, which falls into four recognised stages.

  • Preparation: You need to do careful preparation and research, especially in canvassing the views of your members.
  • The opening: One side tables a proposal and the other side responds. This stage can involve adjournments to collect further information and test out arguments. It also includes identifying the relative importance of issues, fall-back positions and ‘bottom lines’.
  • Trading: Both sides trade things in order to move from fixed opening positions to an agreement: “We’ll offer x if you’ll agree to y.” Again, there can be lots of adjournments to explore options, test arguments, consult, etc. This stage builds consensus and narrows down the areas of disagreement.
  • Agreement: This should include a phase where the final proposal is put to the members and ends with the agreement being documented for future reference.

To reach an agreement, both sides must be open to new ideas and willing to accept changes. If no agreement is made, negotiations can break down and unions may resort to industrial action. If industrial action is required, UNISON regional offices get involved and provide advice on the correct procedures to follow.

Once workers and employers have reached an agreement, it is signed and kept in place either for a set time or until replaced.

Your role

As a steward you should:

  • make sure that members’ views and concerns are fed into the bargaining process;
  • keep members informed of developments;
  • canvas members’ views and make sure they are fed back into the negotiation process;
  • encourage members to take part in ballots, surveys, etc;
  • keep members informed of the outcome of any negotiations.