Preparing for Collective Bargaining

Negotiations with faculty and staff will go more smoothly if your college or university has done its homework, Carmen Plaza de Jennings advises.

January 31, 2014

Much has been written about collective bargaining philosophy and approach. Bargaining approach is important, but what makes bargaining successful irrespective of approach? It may sound simplistic, but it’s true: success is all in the planning.

Whether negotiating an initial contract for your college or university or the 10th successor agreement, in either the private or public college and university setting, you can never be overprepared at any stage of negotiations. Taking the time prior to negotiations to prepare smartly, adequately and thoroughly will increase the odds of a successful outcome. The following are practical steps that you and your institution’s bargaining team can take in advance of negotiations to effect a positive outcome.

Know Thyself

It is difficult to be successful if you do not truly know your institution from the start of each round of negotiations.  Oftentimes, it is easy for those individuals who represent the institution at the bargaining table – especially those who have been doing so for a long time – to simply assume that they know the issues for negotiations and that therefore there is no real need to engage in any self-reflection or investigation this time around.  While people involved in prior negotiations often bring invaluable institutional knowledge of bargaining history, politics and personalities to the table, there is no substitute for commencing negotiations having recently completed an internal audit specifically to guide the current negotiations.

Well in advance of the initial bargaining session, a comprehensive internal audit should be conducted.  Internal audits, to be effective, must include more than passive review of paper, data and lists.  An effective audit includes proactively gathering information from key administrators and managers such as deans and department chairs regarding current workplace issues, employee grievances, operational needs and efficiencies, and potential political land mines that all too often are not evident from the paper and data alone. 

It also includes the gathering of financial data essentials such as overall costs of the bargaining unit (salary/benefits), the value of a 1-percent increase for bargaining unit members, revenue and expense trends, CPI trends, and historical economic data. Also essential to know before you commence bargaining is comparability data from other similar institutions as well as your institution’s budgeted and actual staffing levels.

Know Your Players

Members of a negotiating team bring to the table different personalities, perceptions, experiences (history) and expertise. Therefore, it is important upfront to carefully consider what mix of people is optimal for reaching the institution’s goals in the negotiations.  Above all, it is critical to bring to the bargaining table people who are knowledgeable and credible, since credibility is a key to success in the bargaining process.  Consideration should be given to both internal “fit” within the team, as well as the potentially positive or negative impact someone may have on the people sitting across the table. 

Substantively, a bargaining team should generally include at least one individual with expertise in the institution’s fiscal matters, the college or university’s operations, as well as representatives of any particular institutional strategic interests or who possess any special skills and knowledge pertinent to the negotiations. Last, but not least, take into consideration practical but important logistical issues such as selecting a team member with computer expertise, and also someone who is capable of taking copious and accurate notes for each bargaining session.

Know Who’s on the Other Side of the Table

Equally important in negotiations to knowing thyself, is knowing and understanding the interests on the other side of the table.  Like the university’s bargaining team members, faculty bargaining team members bring to the table their own personalities, backgrounds, experiences and interests.  Knowing as much as possible about those personalities and interests prior to negotiations will enable you to develop a strategy for dealing with them during negotiations. 

Therefore, part of your internal audit should include a review of any grievances and complaints from bargaining team members and/or other faculty, and their representatives. The purpose of this endeavor is to identify patterns of conduct or specific issues that may arise in your negotiations.

Beyond identifying through an audit the general issues of bargaining unit members at the institution, it is also important to identify the interests of the unit members’ representatives.  Labor organizations represent employees, but also represent their own interests at the table. Therefore, it is crucial for institutions to fully understand these interests, if bargaining is to be successful. 

Part of your pre-negotiations strategy, then, should also be to research the interests of the labor organization.  Taking the time to delve into the labor organization’s website, governing documents, and other articles and information readily available via the internet regarding its negotiations with other employers, frequently results in information about what approaches, strategies and goals can be expected at your bargaining table. 

Additionally, communicating with other administrators at institutions that negotiate with the same labor representative can often provide valuable insight into how negotiations might proceed at your institution, and what strategies are successful in dealing with them.

Know Your Strategy

Taking the time sufficiently in advance of negotiations to identify and define your goals and strategy in the negotiations is another central component to successful negotiations.  The results of the internal audit will enable the bargaining team to develop a focused overall strategy for negotiations, including essential goals and guiding principles that will serve as important grounding for the institution on any issues that emerge during negotiations.

In addition to focusing on the desired goals for negotiations, planning your strategy also includes the issue of how communications will be handled.  In faculty negotiations, educating staff and management can be critical.  Therefore, part of your negotiations strategy should include identifying the appropriate communication vehicles for different constituencies, as well as focusing the institution’s “message” for the negotiations and determining how the message will be used to target specific groups.

Ultimately, to be effective, bargaining strategy needs to be both short-term and long-term.  Collective bargaining is an ongoing process, and the relationship continues past initial contract negotiations.  All too often, the focus is on getting the big win at the table during the current negotiations.  While this is important, a successful bargaining strategy takes into consideration the entire, ongoing relationship between the parties.  Therefore, effective strategy recognizes that the entire relationship will become more difficult if there is not respect from the outset, a civil dialogue, and a genuine willingness to get along and compromise.  

Know the Legal Landscape

Labor law is a broad legal topic that can be both complex and arcane.  The time for all bargaining team members to understand legal rights and obligations is before negotiations commence.  Training on parameters of management rights, the applicable legal process for negotiations in your jurisdiction, and how to avoid potential unfair labor practice charges is therefore an essential part of planning for success.


Planning for negotiations takes forethought, effort and consideration, but it is not rocket science.  Making the effort upfront and sufficiently in advance of negotiations to gather pertinent information and data, assemble the optimal bargaining team, gain valuable insight into the interests and approaches of the players on the other side, and develop your college or university’s negotiations strategy, will go a long way toward your ultimate success at the bargaining table and in developing a successful ongoing labor relationship.


Carmen Plaza de Jennings is a partner in the San Francisco office of Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP.

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