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Collective bargaining is the process of negotiation by which collective agreements are reached. Such agreements are compromises which reflect the relative bargaining power of the parties. The term was originally used by Beatrice and Sidney Webb (and coined by Beatrice Webb) to describe the process in which groups of workers combine together and send representatives to conduct the bargaining over the sale of their labour on behalf of the whole group. Thus instead of a number of individual bargains between employer and worker , one single agreement was reached. A later definition described the process as that of joint regulation. Collective bargaining necessarily involves negotiation, as distinct from the process of consultation in which the employer is not obliged to reach agreement with the workforce or its representatives.

Collective bargaining in Ireland is a voluntary process (see voluntarism ) in that there is no obligation on either party to enter into negotiations. From this comes the concept of "free" collective bargaining. The only possible exception to this is in the case of collective redundancy the Protection of Employment Act 1977 imposes a legal requirement on employers to consult with workers' representatives.

The vast majority of workers in Ireland have their pay and conditions determined by collective bargaining, although an increasing number of employers are moving to new management techniques such as human resource management which advocates, among other things, non-recognition of trade unions.

Bargaining structure: This term refers to the more stable features of the bargaining process in any given system. Bargaining structure has five distinct features, as follows:

(a) Bargaining agent: The union or unions recognised by the employer for collective bargaining purposes in respect of a particular bargaining unit (see below). Where one union has exclusive bargaining rights in respect of a particular bargaining unit, that union is the sole bargaining agent.

(b) Bargaining form: The level of formality of the agreement. Agreements may be formal or informal, written or unwritten. Informal, unwritten agreements often take the form of custom and practice . Agreements relating to terms and conditions, and procedural agreements, are more usually written.

(c) Bargaining level: The point at which bargaining between unions and employers takes place. Bargaining may be centralised or decentralised: centralised bargaining refers to that occurring at some centre point (the social partners acting at a national level, or bargaining at the top level of a large organisation, for example) covering a wide bargaining unit , while decentralised bargaining is that removed from the centre, and could be at shop floor or small workgroup level. Decentralised bargaining is normally a form of singleemployer bargaining (see below), while centralised bargaining may be either single-employer or multi-employer bargaining (see below). Centralised bargaining is of particular relevance in Ireland (see public service pay agreements , National Wages Agreements and National Understandings , the Programme for National Recovery , the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and the Programme for Competitiveness and Work ). In the public sector, most bargaining takes place at national level for Government departments and State agencies and semi-State bodies . Bargaining may also be at industry or local level: bargaining at the level of the industry or industrial sector is generally multi-employer, while local bargaining takes place at workplace or shop floor level and is single-employer. Occasionally centralised national bargaining produces a framework agreement on a substantive issue, the detailed implementation of which is then left to trade unions and employers to negotiate at some lower level. An example of this was the agreement in 1989 as part of the Programme for National Recovery to reduce the length of the working week by one hour for all employees.

The level at which bargaining takes place is an important tactic in control from the point of view of both employers and trade unions, to the extent that it has been argued that if in manufacturing industry, for example, bargaining takes place at a level which is closer to the "point of production", then workers may have more power over management.

(d) Bargaining scope: The range of issues over which collective bargaining may take place. Bargaining between trade unions and employers is normally restricted to terms and conditions of employment, and perhaps to wider issues such as work organisation and intensity. National tripartite bargaining, in which the State as Government takes a part, may have a wider range of issues available for negotiation, including job creation measures and employment legislation. In the context of national tripartite bargaining in recent years the bargaining scope has been broadened significantly, and this trend seems set to continue.

(e) Bargaining unit: The group or category of workers represented by a bargaining agent and covered by a particular agreement. Several bargaining units may exist within one organisation, depending on the subject of the particular negotiations. Procedures, for instance, may be the same for all workers within the organisation, while issues such as hours of work, bonuses and holidays may be negotiated separately for white-collar and manual workers. However, with the growth of single-status , the number of bargaining units within individual organisations may reduce.

Collective bargaining may also be single-employer, multiemployer or tripartite. The first refers to bargaining involving just one employer, although more than one trade union may be involved. Single-employer bargaining may take place at the level of the shop floor, the site or the organisation, and so may be single or multi-plant. Multi-employer bargaining involves more than one employer, or perhaps one or more employers' association acting on behalf of the employers. Multi-employer bargaining usually takes place at national or industry level. Finally, tripartite bargaining involves the Government in its role as Government, and is very common in Ireland. The scope of tripartite bargaining may be wider than that of bipartite bargaining (that between unions and employers). See also incomes policy .

Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.

Page last updated: 14 August, 2009