Setting out ground rules for negotiations is a relatively minor, though important, component of collective bargaining. Essentially, this step establishes the procedural rules for how negotiations will take place.
Not unlike the way one would set up rules of procedure for other situations, ground rules help to clarify the parties’ mutual understanding and shared expectations for how negotiations will be carried out. In other words, they establish how the parties will negotiate together and what steps they will follow.
There are benefits to establishing expectations in writing, which are agreed to by the parties. Some benefits are that it helps establish balance with regard to fairness and respect at the bargaining table, and it provides some reassurance that a party’s behaviour and actions throughout negotiations will follow the rules that have been agreed to. Depending on trust and other factors, some bargaining units may choose to simply rely on past practice or verbal understandings as to how negotiations will be conducted.
Each bargaining unit will have particular concerns to address in the ground rules for collective bargaining. Typically, the ground rules for a bargaining table are modeled on rules used in previous rounds of negotiations, with minor amendments proposed to address any issues that may have come to light in the recent history of bargaining. That said, sometimes the political landscape warrants that ground rules relied on in previous rounds be radically altered as a strategic maneuver.
Ground rules can include whatever the parties ultimately agree to, but practically speaking, they could address things like: dates for presentation of briefs; the composition of table teams; who the lead spokespersons and coordinators will be; meeting locations and costs; dates, times, and agendas for negotiating sessions; signing-off protocols for agreed-to articles; how the parties may engage with the media; clarity on note-taking and records; requests for information; ratification processes for a tentative deal; and so on.
Once the ground rules for negotiations are agreed to, the most substantial component of bargaining can begin. The parties exchange ideas through their bargaining briefs, make cases to justify their positions, and the union tries to negotiate a path towards the best possible collective agreement for its members.
In the next issue: What actually happens in bargaining? How is strategy applied?