Britain has one of the most developed systems of collective bargaining in the world, especially amongst manual workers. Its sophistication is one of the main reasons why British workers traditionally pressed less for the statutory provision of basic rights in the work place than their Continental colleagues. Most trade unionists prefer to put a grievance ‘through procedure’ rather than go to an industrial tribunal.
Dubin has described collective bargaining as ‘the great social invention that has institutionalised industrial conflict’ and by the Donovan Commission as ‘right which is or should be the prerogative of every worker in a democratic society’. It could be also defined as a method of determining terms and conditions of employment through the process of negotiation and agreement between representatives of management and employees.
Collective bargaining does not require a comprehensive collective agreement for a stated period of time. It requires only the recognition of the bargaining agency and the principle of action that mutual problems be jointly considered and jointly decided. The desire of each party to be assured about the other’s future conduct - that is, the desire for stability and security - makes the comprehensive collective agreement for a term the normal concomitant of collective bargaining. It requires each party to think into the future, to anticipate situations and to determine solutions before situations arise. It requires the making of policy - which, when agreed upon, becomes the collective agreement.
The heart of the collective agreement - indeed, of collective bargaining - is the process for continuous joint consideration and adjustment of plant problems. And it is this feature which indicates the difference between the collective labour agreement and commercial contracts generally. Commercial contracts are concerned primarily with ‘end results’; collective agreements, with continuous process. Workers organised into trade unions and bargaining with employers provides a measure of countervailing power to the powers of management, and that is fundamental to industrial relations. The collective bargaining process provides a formal channel through which the differing interests of management and employees may be resolved on a collective basis. The collective agreement is not made between parties who seek each other out for the purpose of entering into a business transaction and who can shop around among competitors for the most favourable connection. It is made between parties who find themselves already in a joint enterprise and who have little or no choice in selecting each other for the relationship. The union does not choose the employer and the employer does not choose the union. Both are dependent on the same enterprise and neither can pull out without destroying it. Even when a dispute between them results in suspension of operations, they must strive so to adjust the dispute as to resume their relationship.
Whilst undoubtedly the process of collective bargaining has become more formalised at the organisation level, many arrangements (agreements) are still made between managers and shop stewards in respect of operational situations at the departmental or workgroup level.
Collective bargaining through collective agreements places social constraints upon managerial discretion. One type of constraint consists of the labour standards or norms established by collective agreements relating to pay and hours which are translated into the terms and conditions of employment for employees represented by trade unions. Such standards limit managerial discretion in setting wage, hours and other substantive terms of employment. At the same time these standards also offer the advantage to management of harmonising labour costs throughout the industry.
The second constraint is related to the bargaining over the rules, which govern the continuing relationship between unions and employers. These rules are often recorded in procedure agreements or the procedural clauses of collective agreements: negotiating procedures, bargaining rights and management rights clauses, shop stewards’ facilities, redundancy, disciplinary and grievance procedures. This is the so-called ‘contractual function’ of collective agreements.
Also collective agreements can provide a joint policy for redundancies or the introduction of new technology providing consultation rights for trade union representatives as well as rights governing seniority, job guarantees and measures to avoid redundancies.
Collective rather than individual bargaining with an employer is necessary for effective voice at the work place for two reasons. First, many important aspects of an industrial setting are ‘public goods’, which affect the well being of every employee. As a result the incentive for