How Important is the Selection of the Members of a Collective Bargaining Team?

It is important for bargaining teams to be chosen properly. These are some guidelines for selecting bargaining team members.

One of the most important decisions management and union must make when beginning the preparation for collective bargaining a term agreement is the make up their respective bargaining teams. When it comes to bargaining teams the two most important issues are how many and who.

I have seen bargaining teams of varying sizes. The number is important to developing a cohesive and effective team. The greatest number I have ever seen was 22 on each side. It was only after the parties decided to trim down the number that real progress was made in their negotiations. Bargaining team sizes are the subject of ground rules negotiations.

Often management takes the position that the union can only have as many negotiators as management has at the table. This is based on an FLRA case (NFFE Local 1437 and Army Armament Research and Development Center, Dover, NJ 18 FLRA 96).

This case held that a union is only entitled to official time for the number of negotiators management brings to the table on any given day. This comes from an interpretation of 5 U.S.C. 7103(a) which provides that the number of employees for which official time is authorized shall not exceed the number of individuals designated as representing the agency for such purposes.

While this provision places a limitation on the number of union bargainers who can receive statutory official time under this section for bargaining, it does not place a limitation on the number of bargainers the union can have who do not receive official time such as national representatives or union attorneys. 

How many team members can the union have?

In theory, the union can only have as many bargainers as show up for management each day. In bargaining involving nationwide bargaining units whose bargainers often travel for bargaining, this could be a precarious situation with union bargainers not knowing whether they were on official time until they got to the table on a particular day to see who was there representing management. Luckily most often union and management come to an agreement on the number of bargainers either directly in the ground rules or through an informal understanding on the number who will be on each side while acknowledging the case law.

Is there a magic number of team members? 

Is there a magic number of bargainers? Other than large nationwide bargaining units which can have up to 10 on each side the norm is usually 5 or 7.

When working with parties on ground rules, I urge them to look at an odd number of bargainers on each side. Sometimes chief negotiators will poll the bargaining team in caucus as to the position they should take on a particular issue. Having an odd number allows for a decision on the poll when there are two choices. The smaller the bargaining unit the more often the number is 5, the larger the bargaining unit more often it is 7. Having enough allows for individual bargainers to be missing from sessions without upsetting the bargaining timetable especially if alternates are not available.

An even more important issue than the number of bargainers is who the bargainers will be. The most important choice is who will be the chief negotiator. Who is selected as chief negotiator can have a significant impact of the success of the negotiations.

What are the character traits of a chief negotiator?

I have over the years worked with many chief negotiators. Most of them were excellent, and with respect to some others it was a wonder how they were ever selected for the role.

There were certain character traits common to all good chief negotiators. They were perceived by the other side to be honest, fair, and looked to do the right thing. They were approachable and not easily rattled. They avoided name calling and personal invective against the other side.

The most important trait was they had good judgment and knew when to hold them and when to fold them.

Many had never been chief negotiators before but grew into the job. Some were old hands and had participated in many negotiations. 

Many agencies are now moving to having a position of chief negotiator in the human resources office. This is intended to assure the agency has expertise at every bargaining session and not have to worry about someone just learning how to perform the role of chief negotiator.

While this may be a good idea for many agencies, my personal experience has been that some of the best chief negotiators did not come from the Human Resources shop but instead were managers who became very good at leading negotiations for management. 

What is the role of the chief negotiator? 

The ground rules usually specify the roles to be performed by chief negotiator.

One of the paramount roles is to act as chief spokesperson for their side, and if traditional bargaining is the bargaining process used, often they are the only person speaking for their side.

They sign off on completed articles signifying the agreement of their side to the article. They are often the only team member on a side authorized to call caucuses. They maintain internal discipline of their team. They, with the chief negotiator for the other side, arrange the schedule for bargaining sessions if not set forth in the ground rules.

One of the least understood roles is to create a relationship with the other side’s chief negotiator. This cannot be underestimated. If the two chief negotiators can develop a sound working relationship, that will greatly improve the possibility of a good outcome for both sides. When the chief negotiators don’t like or even despise each other, that greatly prolongs the bargaining.

Who should make up the bargaining teams?

Bargaining team members should represent the largest organizational segments of the bargaining unit. This gives the agreements reached more credibility because the employees and managers believe their interests were represented.

They should also represent functional areas. Some bargaining units have disparate employee functions. As an example, some DOD bargaining units have firefighters, contracting personnel and other administrative and professional employees in one unit. They all need to feel their function is understood and represented. Team members should have specific expertise relevant to then mission of the organization.

Qualifications of team members

Team members need not be experts in collective bargaining law and process. They are not expected to be expert negotiators. They are there to present their viewpoint from the perspective of what they do and where they work in the agency. They are also there to give input into what will work and what will not work for the employees and managers.

How does a bargaining team member participate in bargaining?

Team members should participate when appropriate in accordance with the bargaining process being used. If traditional bargaining, team members only speak when permitted by the chief negotiator. In interest based bargaining, team members have the right to fully participate at the table with no restrictions.

Whichever bargaining process is used, team members should fully participate in caucuses. If team members disagree with the chief negotiator they should do so only in caucus.

They should be attentive to what is going on. At a couple of bargaining sessions in which I participated, a team member kept falling asleep at the table. The other side considered that very rude and an indication of how important the negotiations were to that side.

What is the role of a team member?

Team members can be assigned specific roles during the bargaining. One team member can be assigned to take bargaining history notes unless there is a designated note taker. One member who has expertise in the law of collective bargaining should be assigned as the designated researcher to research the law, as necessary, throughout the bargaining. One member can be designated to research other collective bargaining agreements to determine if there is language that applies to the issue in dispute. A member can be designated to research agency and government wide regulations to give information at the table relevant to those issues.

Collective bargaining a term agreement is a marathon.

Keeping the team together and heading in the right direction is the responsibility of each of the team members. It can easily take over a year (and sometimes more) to bargain an agreement. The people selected must realize that in accepting a position on the team, they are in for the long haul. They will learn a lot, but there also may be some sacrifices to obtain a final agreement.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.