THE collective bargaining agent union, popularly known as the CBA, is a representative body of workers in an industrial and commercial establishment. One of the most critical of labour laws, ie the Industrial Relations Act(s) of the four provinces and the federation, deal with the formation of unions and their operation, referendum to elect the CBA and functions of the various fora with participation of workers’ representatives nominated by the CBA.

The CBA nominates its representatives in the workers’ management council, the management and canteen management committees, workers’ participation fund and as shop stewards and trustees for provident and gratuity funds etc. These representatives exercise rights equal to those representing the company management in these forums and take part in decision-making.

However, the most significant among all of CBA’s roles is to periodically negotiate the collective labour agreement with the management. The primary objective of employing an industrial relations manager (IRM), is to ensure maintenance of industrial peace in the organisation. This may be achieved through reaching an amicable settlement with the CBA, followed by its implementation.

Settlement clauses should not leave any ambiguity for the workers, who are the main beneficiaries. The IRM cannot afford to play smart as the CBA can react by disrupting the peaceful environment. Besides, the CBA may approach court for interpreting the disputed clause, and the outcome may not go in favour of the management.

The clauses should not leave any room for ambiguity.

In organisations where there are no CBAs, the management unilaterally decides changes in the terms and conditions of employment of the non-management staff. The latter do not have the option of challenging these anywhere. On the contrary, organisations with CBAs must periodically negotiate their charter of demands for an increase in the existing terms of employment, and reach a settlement.

If the offer of increase in salary and benefits given by management is not acceptable to the CBA, it may go for conciliation under the government’s labour department. In case of failure, it has the option of going on strike on 14 days’ notice.

The process of collective bargaining has been comprehensively prescribed in the industrial relations laws of the provinces and federation. Negotiations with the management on the CBA’s charter of demands start on the expiry of the previous settlement. Sometimes, managements also formally serve their charter of demands on the CBA, but it is not the norm. Mostly, managements take up their demands verbally during negotiations and few clauses are inserted in the settlement through consensus with the CBA.

Usually, it takes two to three months to reach a settlement but at times it may take even more than a year especially if the CBA goes on strike. The commencement date of the settlement is agreed upon between the parties; the agreement may either take retrospective effect, ie following the date on which the previous settlement had expired or the date on which it has been signed. Mostly, the starting date belongs to the retrospective category.

A settlement is binding for such period as agreed upon by the parties but not more than two years. If no such period is agreed upon, then for a period of one year from the date on which the settlement was signed. All the provinces have restricted the operational period to a maximum of two years. However, there is no such limit in the federal act governing trans-provincial organisations; they may reach a settlement of more than two years.

Once a settlement is signed, it has the status of law, a court judgement or an award by an arbitrator. The benefits under the previous settlements remain in force until revoked through an agreement between the parties. In some organisations, managements allow the workers to get a fixed quantity of certain products at highly discounted rates. If the grant of such facility continues for several years, the management cannot withdraw it unilaterally and may only do so through a settlement.

In some progressive organisations, managements provide a booklet of the settlement to all employees. Such practice enables front-line managers to decide minor issues of workers on the shop floor, and they don’t have to seek guidance from the IRM.

The management negotiation team should be mature and possess a cool temperament as CBA officials may suddenly become aggressive during negotiations and use intemperate language. Such behaviour is a usual tactic adopted by the CBA to put pressure on the management team to concede to the CBA’s demand.

Management team should listen to outbursts with patience and start talking only after CBA officials are finished with what they have to say. The management team should then strive to involve the CBA in principled negotiations, which will produce a wise and amicable settlement.

The writer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2022

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