Last month we wrote the blog, “Why Right to Work Doesn’t Work,” so this month we’re writing about the other side of the coin that is collective bargaining: the formal process in which working people, through their unions, negotiate contracts with their employers to determine the terms and conditions of employment.

Collective bargaining is an important way for union workers to come together and let their voices be heard in the workplace, while preserving workplace integrity and respect and creating a safe, professional and rewarding work environment. As the the AFL-CIO states, Unions continue to fight for the intrinsic rights of working people and restore the balance of economic power in our country through collective bargaining agreements.



Throughout the 19th century, many state courts were hostile to labor unions and collective bargaining. They jailed labor union leaders during strikes due to supposed potential for violence, even though there was no evidence that violence occurred. States also allowed employers to require newly hired employees to sign a contract promising to never join a labor union. Even when the contract wasn’t required, employers were free to dismiss workers if they joined a union and wanted to bargain collectively.

During the 19th century and early 20th century, workers continued to suffer oppression and took collective action in the form of strikes. Still, no federal legislation governed labor organizing, collective bargaining and strikes, so state courts (most of which were anti-labor and anti-union) were the ultimate arbiters of workers’ collective action.

The 20th century marked the beginning of American society looking to federal legislation to address the continuing labor conflicts and develop a unified national policy surrounding collective bargaining in the private and public sector.

Today there are three distinct systems of collective bargaining: one for the railroad and airline industries; one for the rest of the private sector; and one for the public sector. (Each state and the federal government have their own collective bargaining law for public employees.)

Railway Labor Act of 1926 (RLA)
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA)


The labor movement built by workers in the United States over the past century is still a strong base for working-class advances and strengthening of collective bargaining in years to come.

The NLRA grants most private sector employees the right to organize labor unions and collectively bargain. Between the NLRA and RLA, approximately 85 percent of all private sector employees hold collective bargaining rights.

On the other hand, public sector collective bargaining rights are established by a patchwork of laws. Federal law offers many federal employees the right to engage in collective bargaining over a limited set of issues and state laws govern the right of state and local government employees to engage in collective bargaining.

As a result of collective bargaining, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is put in place. The CBA is a legally binding agreement that lays out policies agreed to by management and labor. Most CBAs include provisions that address compensation, scheduling, promotions, discipline and job standards. They “usually also contain a grievance procedure, which provides a process for resolving disputes between management and labor over interpretation for the contract”. (

If management and labor cannot reach an agreement on a mandatory subject (such as wages, hours, pensions, health care or working conditions), they are said to be at an impasse. Both sides can then agree to engage in a mediation process where a federal or private mediator or arbitrator helps the parties work to an agreement.

At the impasse, either side may try to apply pressure to force the other side into an agreement. In the private sector, that pressure oftentimes comes in the form of a strike or lockout; however, this is rare because the threat of work stoppage usually pushes the opposite side toward an agreement. In the public sector, employees may only strike if allowed to do so by the relevant law. Federal law prohibits strikes by federal employees, while state and local laws vary.



Collective bargaining allows employees to express a preference for a multitude of topics in their work life, for example, wages, health care and time off. Professionals use collective bargaining to preserve workplace integrity and respect and create safe, professional and rewarding work environments. Without collective bargaining, it would be much more difficult for the voices of employees to be heard and for issues in the workplace to be resolved in a fair and just manner. It is our hope that collective bargaining will continue to make a positive impact in the workforce.

Information adapted from,,, and An Overview of Collective Bargaining in the United States – Cornell University