Tactics for successful union negotiations

Nelly Nyagah

Tactics for successful union negotiations

Things were a little tense in the room. The three groups of union negotiators were ready for a face-off with bosses in a mock bargaining session.
“It doesn’t matter which side of the table you are. What’s important is that you play your role well,” instructed LRS Educator, George Mthethwa. George was facilitating an LRS Collective Bargaining Forum in Johannesburg in May 2018. The participants in the session were a mixed lot of domestic workers, public servants and plant level negotiators.
“Play your role according to your contractual or social obligations. Imagine you have an economic stake in it,” forum co-facilitator, Nosipho Twala, reminded participants.
George and Nosipho like using simulated learning to explain negotiation and bargaining concepts to members of trade unions. They’ve found the pedagogy to be very effective because it engages the audience in deep learning that empowers understanding. Continuous learning is important for union negotiators, particularly because collective bargaining in South Africa is beset with many challenges. Union bargaining cases are increasingly stressed by new technology, globalisation and the expansion of multinational companies. The current climate proves some predicted ideas in The Communist Manifesto (1848), on globalisation and the spread of capitalism across the planet in search of new markets.
The forum held on May 4th is one of several the LRS hosts annually to assist union negotiators renew their bargaining strategies. The goal of this particular forum is to give participants (trade union organisers and shop stewards) a better grasp of collective bargaining across industries in South Africa. This particular forum was unique –  it was the first time we included domestic workers in a ‘mainstream’ negotiation workshop. Participants unpacked how the market economy has affected their experiences in collective bargaining. And Nosipho posed the following question; “It can’t be that everything we do is wrong, otherwise, there will be no collective bargaining anymore. What are we getting right?”

Mimicking a bargaining process

The mock bargaining exercise has the hallmarks of real negotiations: substantive union demands, and cagey and often belligerent bosses. Union demands range from across the board wage increases, and housing and transport allowances to maternity leave and shift allowances.
Real life complexities and challenges of negotiations play out, too.  The participants playing bosses are arrogant, irritable, uninterested, distracted and disrespectful. They barely glance at negotiators presenting the union case. Dismissiveness is one of the companies’ strategies here. The end goal, as Marxian theorists would say, is to intimidate and break the union team so that the company can maintain price control. The companies also hid profit and revenue information and were vague about the initial offers to workers. That flouts unions’ right to access relevant information that can help their bargaining cases.
Across from the bosses sit the participants playing union representatives. Their unpreparedness is striking. It seems they didn’t dive deep into the financial background of the company. Also, no one is sure what the inflation is, yet the rate is crucial when motivating for salary increases. Employers now know about unions’ information gaps and exploit them to their advantage. Some bosses even go to the extent of faking interest rates!

Observations arising

  • Unions haven’t quite mastered how to prioritise their demands.
  • Many unions unwisely prefer appointing a spokesperson instead of having a panel at the negotiating table. This means the burden of arguing the bargaining case falls on one person. The bosses can try to isolate, influence or break the union spokesperson. Employers always send a team to the bargaining table, and every team member is an expert in a particular field and can therefore rebut effectively.
  • When cornered, the strategy of unions is often to disrupt the meeting and quickly revise their offer. Sometimes negotiators drop from a double-digit to a single digit without interrogating the potential outcomes and effects. And it doesn’t help that media fails to highlight the unions’ position to the widest possible audience.
  • The kind of demands forwarded illustrated strained bargaining relations between labour and State. Some of the demands are covered by labour legislation that is worker-friendly. Generally, States are responsible for the development of sound labour laws to promote peace and policies such as the National Minimum Wage.
  • Domestic workers at the forum showed vulnerability despite the provisions in sectoral determinations. Workers in domestic and other vulnerable sectors face a lot of intimidation. Their employers don’t want them to join a union. And their bargaining case gets stifled because the process often happens in the homes of employers.
  • Plant level negotiations are ideal because shop stewards know the history and profitability of companies.

So, what did we learn from the simulation exercise? 

The worker representatives  learned investigative, debating and research skills.
George said solid strategies were necessary to reduce the number of deadlocks and industrial actions.
“Stop bargaining only from a CPI and inflation perspective. For successful outcomes, investigate the cost of living and company profits. Prioritise issues and observe time frames.”
Everyone agreed collective bargaining can improve if unionists learned some accountancy and business language that comes easily to bosses due to their elite education. Companies keep evolving and innovating ways to commodify labour, but unions are stuck in militant approaches and strategies. That must change.

Summary of lessons learned 

  • A negotiator should have good communication and problem-solving skills, be able to collaborate, innovate, compromise and use verbal and non-verbal techniques
  • Watch out for emotional, technical and economic factors. They can influence decisions
  • It’s important to introduce everyone in your negotiating team before the process starts. It establishes the team’s credibility.
  • There’s need to support shop stewards in leading certain demands at the bargaining table. This will strengthen the unions’ voice, and management would have to deal with different personalities and different strengths
  • You need to prepare well, learn to persevere and master the concept of “squeezing the employer.” You must remember that employers wish to pay as little as possible for labour. They also know your first demand isn’t final. Thus, don’t revise your demands too quickly. Also, you must have a fall-back position, but don’t disclose it too early
  • You should have three or four demands and refrain from developing a ‘shopping list’. Do proper research on those demands and have your own role-play before meeting with the employer
  • You can’t discuss any demands that weren’t considered and discussed with workers before the negotiation event, no matter how important they might seem
  • You should call for a caucus if the meeting isn’t yielding the results you anticipated. That’s a better strategy than disrupting the meeting all the time
  • When you deadlock and go on strike, keep the community abreast. Explain the reasons for striking so that workers can get support and sympathy of the broader community. The driving motivation for capitalist investment and production is profit, according to sociologist Erik Olin Wright. Capitalist motivations erodes solidarity and the values of the community, writes Wright in, How to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st century
  • Remember that collective bargaining is about creating labour peace and maintaining a reasonable standard of living
  • Have concrete strategies for resistance. Disrupting the meeting is interpreted as a sign of bad faith
  • The bargaining space isn’t a space to strategise around yourself. It’s disturbing that unions get blamed when things go south. Take the example of the recent bus strike
  • The employer comes with a purpose: to frustrate and intimidate you. The employer might table a 52-page financial report or statements. This is intimidating if you don’t have financial or research skills. Consult your experts and labour support organisations so that you can have an effective strategy of neutralising your opponent
  • You should have a communication strategy to ensure your members know how the negotiations are progressing. Don’t let the media hijack the communication role


Some remarks from the floor


I am sad to see what this beautiful process has become.


I am shocked to see how unprepared we often are. We need to reflect with our teams on this


I am angry at the arrogance of employers


I am humbled to see how hard we try to get the best deal for our members even under such harsh circumstances


Recent Posts

Essential Links

Essential Resources

Tags Cloud

Subscribe to receive our email updates

I am interested in: