News & Events

Pointers on ground rules at the bargaining table

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
January 2008 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Ground rules are usually one of the first items that the parties negotiate when the bargaining process begins. The purpose of having ground rules is to expedite and facilitate the bargaining process. They should never become a hindrance or cause for a delay to the process. They can (and perhaps should) be agreed upon in short order, at the first session.

Written vs. verbal ground rules
Either written or verbal ground rules may be appropriate depending on the history and culture of the bargaining unit and relationship of the parties involved. It is not necessary to always have written ground rules. Ground rule examples Here is a typical list of standard ground rules:

  • Date, time and place of sessions
  • Tentative agreements will be dated, initialed or signed upon agreement
  • Language (non-economic) proposals are to be negotiated before economic proposals. This should not be a hardand- fast rule, but rather a preferred guideline on how to proceed, i.e. the parties may have outstanding language items still on the table as they proceed to negotiate economics.
  • All initial proposals shall be on the table by the second or third session (to avoid any late surprises once bargaining begins is underway).

Additional items that the union often proposes as a part of the ground rules are:

  • Paid release time for union negotiators
  • Frequent bargaining sessions
  • Setting an agenda in advance of each session

Management preferences
It is not unusual for management to propose a list of ground rules that inhibits the process, grants them undue control over the bargaining table, or minimizes the role of the membership. Furthermore, an inordinate amount of time can be wasted by management’s insistence on their version of ground rules. Their items might look like this:

  • No communication with the membership during bargaining
  • Total news and media black-out
  • Only one designated person from each team may speak at negotiations
  • No observers at the table or other limits on the union negotiating team
  • Limit on the length of bargaining sessions
  • Infrequent sessions
  • No food or drinks in the room
  • Anything that restricts, controls or frustrates the process There is no reason that the union must agree to any of these!

Permissive issue
Ultimately, it is important to remember that the subject of ground rules is a permissive issue. This means that the parties do not have to reach agreement in order to begin the bargaining process. While reaching an agreement on ground rules is usually preferred, the bargaining process can begin without a final agreement being reached. The management team would often like the union to believe differently.

Recently, we have seen highly-paid management consultants/union-busting attorneys who specialize in this shoddy behavior. Their designed purpose is to plant the seeds of frustration early around ground rules rather than attempt to reach an agreement. This is a disservice to both parties and an abuse of the process. No one should fall for this obnoxious tactic. Instead, it should be used to educate and motivate the membership into action.