Bargaining at company level: A basic guide for shop stewards


Bargaining at company level: A basic guide for shop stewards

A shop steward is a representative of union members in a workplace. Shop stewards are union members who are democratically elected by workers in a workplace who are members of a union.
The duties of a shop steward include organising workers; representing workers to management; negotiating workers’ issues (including women’s issues) with management; ensuring implementation of agreements; building support for the union; educating members about trade unionism and the workers’ movement; and communicating with the workers.
Shop stewards are the foundation of our trade unions. Shop stewards that are committed, hardworking, disciplined and knowledgeable support the principle of workplace democracy.  
The management and workers have different interests. The management wants workers to work as hard as possible for as little pay as possible. Workers want fair pay and working conditions. This leads to a struggle between management and workers. If workers bargain collectively they have more power. This is because it’s difficult for management to replace all the workers at once. Collective bargaining can improve workers’ wages and conditions.

What matters can be raised in collective bargaining?

Many issues can be raised in collective bargaining. These include; wages, hours of work, health and safety, facilities for the union, public holidays, shifts, maternity, bonuses, leave, shop steward facilities, provident fund, overtime pay, training, job security, non-discrimination and affirmative action. The management can arbitrarily introduce issues in the workplace and in bargaining processes. The issues can range from worker participation schemes, productivity schemes to flexible work and contracting. Shop stewards ensure the voice of workers in critical decisions by the company management.

Where can we bargain?

Collective bargaining can take place at the workplace, company, industry, corporate and national levels.

This article focuses on bargaining at the workplace level.

Workplace level bargaining happens when workers and the management at one factory or workplace get together to discuss issues of common interest. They can negotiate wages and working conditions.

How to prepare for meetings and negotiations with the management

STEP 1:  Analyse the issue
Look at the issue. Is it a collective or individual issue?
STEP 2: Pick the right meeting to discuss the issue.
Depending on the type of issue, the issue would be presented at a regular shop steward meeting, a management meeting, or an emergency special meeting.
STEP 3: Get a clear mandate
Plan a general meeting and get a clear mandate from workers. For minor issues, shop stewards can obtain mandates from the constituency or during departmental meetings.
STEP 4: Meet to plan
Hold a shop stewards’ meeting to work out detailed plans. Identify the main point of the complaint or proposal and make it as clear as possible. In major issues, the proposal should be presented to the management in writing. Do the research and collect the facts and figures before your meeting with the company management. Next, plan tactics: What will you say? Who will say which point? What evidence will you put forward? What is the fall-back action?
STEP 5: Prepare the proposal and agenda
Prepare any written documentation and an agenda for the shop steward and management meeting. Prepare a written proposal for major issues, such as wages and conditions of work.

How to handle meetings/negotiations with the employer 

  • Make clear demands and don’t complain.
  • Give clear motivations. There must be reasons and facts to back up the demands.
  • Stick to the point. Don’t let the management take you off the point.
  • Don’t disagree in front of management. Call for a caucus if there’s any unclear issue or division in your team.
  • Have your own record of the meeting. Be alert if management is taking the official minutes. Take copious notes. 
  • Remind management that you are representing workers and you can’t take decisions without instructions. Ensure management has given a clear answer to workers.

How to report back to workers

  • Plan the report with your team. 
  • Identify the main points from the meeting and write them down.
  • Make sure you are clear about what management’s answer or proposal is.
  • Put the points in order. Don’t jump around from one unconnected point to another.
  • Think about what questions workers might ask you and prepare the answers.
  • Prepare some suggestions for the next step.

4 tips for conducting a successful meeting

  1. Ensure everyone has a chance to speak. Don’t always leave it to the chairperson.
  2. Look at workers to ensure they are following and understanding the discussions 
  3. Allow questions but control the meeting
  4. Steer the meeting to a conclusion.

Negotiating wages and working conditions 

Wage bargaining is a tough issue for unions and the reasons are fairly clear. For employers, higher wages mean lower profits. So, what can win the union a wage increase? Wage increases are won by strong and disciplined organisations. This means shops stewards must have relevant information and negotiating skills.  Good organisation and thorough research and planning are critical in getting the needed increases.


Shop stewards and organisers are mainly responsible for the planning. Good planning is important for successful wage bargaining. Good shop stewards know what workers are talking about and what they want. To plan well, ask and get the answers to the following questions:
  • What are the workers’ expectations?
  • What is the company likely to pay?
  • Should our main demands be wages or should we look at other benefits also?
  • If a dispute seems likely, what ways are we going to use to settle it?
  • Who should sit on the negotiating team?
  • What information do you need from the company?

Getting a mandate

Hold a General Meeting and invite the workers to express their ideas to the negotiating team. The General Meeting is one of the very important forums in the workplace. This is where workers come together to discuss their problems, to share experiences and to develop common responses to these issues. The General Meeting is also where shop stewards report back to members on the various issues taken up on the behalf of members. The General Meeting can provide negotiators with the important information that they need to develop proposals and strategies for the negotiations.

Preparing the proposal

Ensure that the management has provided the relevant company information before writing your proposal. Get the following information before writing the proposal: 
  1. Consumer Price Index (CPI)
  2. Standard of living of workers and their situation
  3. Differentials – Grades; merit systems; women workers’ wages; rates for the different jobs.
  4. Allowances and benefits – shifts; service; attendance; bonuses; housing; food or living out expenses; overtime
  5. Percentage increase or money increase
  6. Number of employees at each rate of pay in each grade
  7. Company information, e.g. type of company and financial situation.

 The negotiating committee can then meet with the company. The meeting(s) can have several outcomes, but remember: 

  • The negotiating committee never accepts the offer unless members can accept it
  • The negotiating committee may agree to support or recommend a proposal when it reports back to the membership
  • It may agree to report back the company’s proposal
  • It may agree to report back but recommend that the company offer be refused
  • It may be agreed that another meeting will be held soon and then after that there will be a report back
  • If after many meetings there is no agreement then the negotiating committee may declare a dispute.

Report back

The negotiating committee must report back to members explaining fully what happened. In these meetings, the team will either be told to go back again or be given a new mandate. There must also be a full discussion of all alternatives.
Remember that shop stewards must make clear plans between meetings. The shop steward will be in a position to see whether it is likely that the negotiations are heading for a deadlock or not.
If it’s clear that a deadlock is looming, then tactics will have to be planned either to strengthen the organisation or to avoid the deadlock, depending on the situation at the time. Shop stewards must be talking and listening throughout the negotiations so that they bring back proper information when reporting back to workers.


The following items will appear in a typical agreement:- the period of operation, hours of work, overtime rate, public holidays, sick leave, annual leave, acting allowance and other allowances such as service and living out, annual bonus and other bonuses, wages per grade and personal increase.
The union can also democratically develop core demands to be presented and adopted by each workplace as part of a wage campaign. In this way, members from different companies build unity with each other around common demands and struggles.
*This article is adapted from the Basic Shop Stewards’ Training Manual of the Workers World Media Productions.


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