What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a voluntary process through which employers and workers discuss
and negotiate their relations and in particular workers’ pay and terms and conditions of
work, seeking to embed these in collective agreements. It is a fundamental role of f trade
unions. Engagement in the process enables trade unions to collectivise the often disparate
demands of workers and develop the possibility of collective action to back-up a particular
Many argue that collective bargaining is supposed to be conducted freely and in good
faith by unions and employers, meaning that each party makes genuine efforts to seek
agreement and then respect the agreements reached. In reality, the environment in which
collective bargaining takes place is determined by the structures of economic, social and
political power in society. In other words, negotiations between unions and employers are
part of deeper power struggles in society and consequently, they reflect those struggles.
For example, in Britain today, collective bargaining takes place in a context where the
power of the union is fettered by repeated Government attacks on trade unions leading
to the UK having sponsorship of some of the most repressive anti-trade union laws in
How do Marxists understand collective bargaining?
Marxists understand that in capitalist societies, there is always a structural conflict
between employers and workers. In capitalist societies, this is true whether you work for a
capitalist or the public sector operating within the constraints of a capitalist economy.
Working life is structured by this struggle and trade unions are the vehicle for expressing
the defensive collective power of workers in the workplace. under capitalism.
If the central tenet is accepted , that there is a continual struggle around the exploitation
in the workplace between worker and employer,, then reaching collective agreements
with employers are akin to a temporary truce in that struggle. How beneficial the
agreement is to workers will generally reflect the balance of forces at that time.
But isn’t collective bargaining inherently conservative?
Some commentators, especially those working within certain kinds of Trotskyist tradition,
have tended to characterise collective bargaining as inherently conservative. Workers, they

What is collective bargaining? 1

say, want to win whereas officials, working within collective bargaining structures just
want to compromise. Others seem to believe that workers only need to take action to be
able to win. Both analyses rely on a crude understanding of workers’ consciousness and of
unions. They believe that working people are always straining to break off the leash,
vanquish their employers and express their revolutionary potential, but are held back by
collective bargaining conventions and unprincipled venal bureaucrats. They also naively
underestimate the potentially huge power at the disposal of employers.
Collective bargaining can be conservative if it is seen as an end in itself and the only
purpose of trade unions. But the immediate aims of collective bargaining – bargaining to
win better wages and conditions for workers, using the threat of collective action – do
accurately express where most workers start from and what most workers believe their
unions are for. Given the right conditions and used skilfully in tandem with mobilisations it
can win real concessions for workers that increase income and build union power. And in
certain circumstances it can play a role in beginning more radical dynamic processes.
How does collective bargaining play a role in developing trade union and class consciousness?
Seen as a place where a temporary truce is played out in the constant struggle between
workers and employers, collective bargaining plays an important role in the development
of trade union consciousness. It is where workers’ initial demands are given expression and
when it is pursued effectively and combined with good tactical and strategic use of
collective action, it is part of a process that creates greater militant consciousness among
workers. Collective bargaining can be a place where more radical demands are expressed
too – such as for greater industrial democracy and control of work processes.
In periods of raised militant class consciousness among sections of the workforce in
Britain, such as during the strike wave in 1968-74, collective bargaining and the winning
of concessions was a central part of an industrial and political strategy among
revolutionary shop steward organisations. Collective bargaining, is a form through which
rising trade union and class consciousness can be expressed, organised and further
developed. The revolutionary potential of any form of class action is determined by the
specific details of the economic and political context, the balance of class forces and the
specific culture and traditions in any given situation, not by arid intellectual formulas that
divide the world neatly into revolutionary and reformist forms of action.
Collective bargaining in Britain - rise and decline:
Historically, the introduction of collective bargaining institutions, such as national
negotiating bodies (e.g. the ‘Whitley’ councils) in many industries rose in importance
during periods when the power of organised labour was growing and when employers
felt the need to engage with the unions. In Britain this was especially the case in the 20th
century when wartime industrial demands and a shortage of labour increased collective
leverage. The idea of sector and enterprise level structures of collective bargaining was
seen as an attractive option for many employers and the state.
When big industrial employers, finance capital and the state launched their great counterattack from the 1970s onwards, it signalled that this period was over. An essential part of
the neoliberal assault that expressed the interests of these groups was the idea that trade
unions were a market imperfection that distorted the efficient operation of labour
markets. While not expressed as such, that ideology remains dominant today, even within
sections of the British Labour Party. State support for the institutions of collective

2 What is collective bargaining?

bargaining has been deliberately reduced over a 30-year period.
Winning the argument that enabling workers to engage in meaningful collective
bargaining is an important and legitimate part of the operation of any society that has
social and democratic objectives, is an important immediate political objective for unions.
Collective bargaining, Partnership working, Workers’ control
There has been a long-running debate among trade unionists about collective bargaining
and different forms of greater worker participation in enterprise management. At one end
of the spectrum, employers try to give the illusion of offering ‘partnership working; but
there were times when there were real debates about the possibility of workers’ control in
certain industries.
Another briefing will be developed to explore these issues further but although notions of
workers’ control can be a tactically appropriate response for workers within enterprises in
certain circumstances it is important not to lose sight of the strategic need for
independent working class organisation and the overriding interest of the capitalist class
as a whole, organised through the state rather than simply at enterprise level.
What next? Collective bargaining strategy for unions
As is well known, the number of workers who are covered by agreements negotiated
through collective bargaining in Britain has suffered a precipitous decline in the last 30
years, coinciding with the state offensive against unions, the recomposition of capitalism
and the accompanying loss of entire industries, the growth of finance capital and global
labour markets and the spread of neoliberal ideology.
Fig 1: Collective bargaining coverage in the UK:

What is collective bargaining? 3

Unions are not likely to disappear, but nor can they sit back and assume that the
contemporary working class in Britain will organically find its way back to them. If
organised labour is to rebuild its economic and political power, it must consciously rebuild
its ability to barraging collectively on their behalf. And it must do so at a time when the
state is renewing its attack on the very existence of trade unions.
l Where collective bargaining frameworks still exist, in the public sector, for example,
unions must develop strategies to use bargaining and targeted action in pursuit of ‘smart’
bargaining wins that enable aggressive recruitment to increase density.
l Unions in the private sector could consider targeting strategically important employers,
organising, bargaining and taking action at critical points along their supply chains, using
this leverage to win agreements that cover the whole chain and enable the expansion of
l Unions in the private sector should also consider exploiting the divisions in the UK
economy between the interests of industry and those of finance capital, working to build
alliances with key manufacturing and services companies, winning support for collective
bargaining as part of strategic alliances around the defence and rebuilding of the
productive economy.
Finally, unions need to develop their community work to build support deep within the
wider working class, offset the political attack from the ruling class and build political
support for measures for trade union freedom.

4 What is collective bargaining?