Collective Bargaining: The Basics

Collective bargaining is the process by which an employer and a union representing some or all of the employer’s employees negotiate over the “wages, hours and other conditions of employment” for those employees. These are called “mandatory subjects” of collective bargaining.

The Service Employees union wants to represent certain PhD and Masters students seeking degrees through the Duke Graduate School. If an NLRB election is held, and if a majority of the eligible graduate students who vote, vote for representation, the SEIU would become the “exclusive bargaining representative” of each graduate student member in that bargaining unit; those who voted for union representation, but also those who voted against the union and those graduate student members who did not cast a vote. As the “exclusive bargaining representative,” the SEIU – and only the SEIU – would speak for every represented graduate student member. Stated another way, each graduate student member then represented by the union would no longer be able to deal directly with Duke (your faculty member) regarding your wages, hours and other terms and conditions of your employment. The SEIU would have the sole and exclusive authority to negotiate those details of your employment.

Section 8(d) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) defines collective bargaining as:

“The performance of the obligation of the employer and the representative of the employees to meet at reasonable times and places and confer in good faith with respect to wages, hours and other terms of employment, or the negotiation of any agreement or any question arising thereunder, and the execution of a written contract incorporating any agreement reached if requested by either party …”

That language simply creates the obligation for the union and the employer to meet at “reasonable times,” but that does not require any specific frequency for those meetings. This language also does not create any specific time during which these negotiations must be completed. The negotiation of an initial collective bargaining agreement can take months and often longer than a year to finalize.

Section 8(d) of the NLRA also limits collective bargaining by noting that the obligation to bargain in good faith “… does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession.” This means Duke University would have no obligation to agree to anything the SEIU proposes in bargaining if that proposal is not acceptable to the University. That language also means that a union cannot guarantee that they can deliver on any promise for improvement made by the union during the campaign.

Section 8(d) of the NLRA also means there are no guarantees in bargaining. Nobody knows what would happen as a result of bargaining, and there are three possible outcomes. As a result of Collective Bargaining, Duke University graduate students could receive more than they currently have, they could also receive exactly what they have now, or they could even receive less than what they currently have.

Collective Bargaining presents difficult choices. Review the answers under the Collective Bargaining heading of Frequently Asked Questions for further information.