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Collective Bargaining: What It Is, How It Works, Why It Matters

Collective bargaining is about more than ensuring economic security. It's about winning better conditions for student learning and development. Here's how to make it work for you.
Published: 06/2020

Collective bargaining gives educators a voice. Through collective bargaining, NEA members negotiate for more than their own economic security. They are also securing vital resources to help communities bring in more public resources to improve education, by reducing class size, increasing student learning times while reducing unnecessary testing, and gaining affordable health care for children and their families.

The strength in unions is critical to improving our economy and helping working families get ahead. In good or bad economic times, a collaborative public education employer can better serve students and the community by negotiating in good faith with its unions.

Our locals are also opening up the negotiations process to include community partners and parents to develop proposals together to gain critical resources for students and ensure that all students have the support they need, no matter where they live.

Below you'll find tools you need to raise your collective voice for students and educators, including:

  • Context on the right to collective bargaining
  • The case for collective bargaining and advocacy
  • The stages of the collective bargaining process
  • Next steps for working working with your local.
NEA higher ed members
NEA higher ed members make their voices heard together.

A Brief History of Collective Bargaining

1935: Private Sector Bargaining Is Protected

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is passed, guaranteeing the right of private sector employees to organize and collectively bargain. The NLRA only covers workers in the private sector. Many states then follow with similar laws to regulate organizing, bargaining, and settling disputes for working people in the public sector, including public education employees.

1962: Public School Teachers Protected

The nation’s first collectively bargained agreement with public school teachers was signed in 1962 in New York City. Teachers there achieved higher salaries and other demands to improve working conditions and protect jobs.

2020: Collective Bargaining Rights Must Be Protected

Currently, teachers in 34 states and the District of Columbia have the legal right to bargain. Education support professionals in 31 states plus D.C. have that right, as do some higher education faculty in 28 states and D.C.

Why support collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining in education offers an organized and transparent system to improve student learning and the overall environment in public schools, and helps ensure that educators receive a professional level of pay.

1. Bargaining results in better teaching and learning conditions.

Educators are bargaining on issues that go beyond salary, benefits, and working conditions. They are bargaining for the common good - over issues such as class size limits, increased time for teachers to share effective classroom practices, guaranteed recess periods, induction and mentoring, restorative practices, increased staffing to address social-emotional needs such as nurses, counselors, and psychologists, a pipeline for career advancement such as grow your own programs, addressing inequities and tackling institutional racism, and school-related and community-wide health and safety issues.

Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, so by addressing school and classroom issues, everyone gains.

2. Bargaining supports the fight for social justice.

Educators are driven by purpose. There’s the day-to-day purpose of helping students learn, but there’s also a higher purpose to help improve students’ lives, especially for the growing number who struggle with poverty.

NEA affiliates are using negotiations to “bargain for the common good" - to organize local stakeholders around a set of issues that benefit not just our members in a building, but the wider community as a whole. All educational employees and their associations are standing together to demand better for our schools and our children and for the common good of our communities. 

3. Collective bargaining gives educators a voice in their workplace.

Every organization can benefit from the ideas and expertise of its employees. Negotiations ensure that education employees have a respected voice in the workplace and are involved in both identifying and solving school and classroom issues, which in turn promotes student learning. 

Through union representatives, front-line educators are given a meaningful say in such issues as the availability of needed resources, teaching of at-risk students, professional development, teacher-to-teacher peer assistance, and worksite health and safety.

4. Bargaining gives new educators more support.

New educators often find teaching to be challenging—and even veteran teachers need extra support if they are teaching new subjects or curriculums. A negotiated mentoring or coaching program is especially helpful so new educators receive feedback and support about curriculum development, classroom management, parent communications, and other responsibilities.

Associations can negotiate or collaborate on identifying the roles and responsibilities for mentors and coaches, the selection process, compensation, and other program elements. The Association can also ensure that the mentoring/coaching program aligns with existing teacher evaluation procedures and that all new teachers understand the system.

5. Collective bargaining secures fair wages and benefits, improving teacher recruitment and retention.

Professional salaries are a significant incentive for recruiting educators to work in a particular district or to choose education as a career. By joining together as an association, educators have more strength in numbers and can negotiate for better compensation and benefits.

Teachers are traditionally underpaid in comparison to comparable professionals. Negotiating as a group helps leverage teachers’ power, not only in terms of compensation and benefits, but also for improved working conditions.

6. Collective bargaining ensures fair employment procedures.

A collectively bargained contract ensures that all employees are treated fairly because both parties have discussed and agreed upon rules and procedures for the workplace. 

Employees and managers understand what steps will be used to resolve employee grievances, lay off workers, or settle disputes. Associations and management rely on negotiated impasse procedures to resolve problems. Contracts and/or state laws may also set forth processes and principles for conducting teacher evaluations that are comprehensive, meaningful, and fair, and improve both teacher practices and student learning.

7. Collective bargaining is good public policy.

When educators and management can come to agreement on salary, benefits, and working conditions — while also improving teaching and learning conditions — everyone benefits. And in the healthiest education environments, positive union-management relations is a continuous process – often carried out monthly through a joint labor-management committee.


What are my options if my state doesn't have collective bargaining rights?

In states without collective bargaining rights, education employees and their associations can still collaborate with school districts, and advocate at the state and school district level for improved student learning conditions and educators’ professional growth. They can advocate with school districts to meaningfully address issues such as institutional racism, fair pay and benefits, and other pressing issues.

How does collective bargaining work?

Collective bargaining is a process through which the employee union and employer representatives exchange ideas, mutually solve problems, and reach a written agreement. The resulting approved contract binds both groups. Each round of successor negotiations affords the parties the opportunity to revisit existing agreements. While there are many local variations, here is how the collective bargaining process typically unfolds in public education: 

1. Preparing for bargaining.

Both sides form bargaining teams and gather information. The union’s team usually is selected through a process outlined in the union’s constitution and/or by-laws, while the management team is designated by the employer. The union leadership meets with its constituents and/or conducts surveys to identify and then prioritize issues. 

During this assessment phase, each team also analyzes the current collective bargaining agreement to identify areas they want to improve, including concerns that have surfaced through the grievance process. The local will hopefully reach out to community partners, including parents, to seek input on some proposals. 

2. Conducting negotiations.

At the beginning of bargaining, the teams may negotiate ground rules, meet at an agreed upon location, and start negotiations. Some contract provisions remain the same from contract to contract. The parties may modify other sections and either side may propose a new bargaining topic. State law and court cases determine the mandatory, permissive, and prohibited subjects of bargaining. 

3. Ratifying the contract.

When the union and employer teams have reached a tentative contract agreement, they review the proposal with their respective constituency groups. The union holds a ratification meeting where employees — typically dues-paying members only — have the opportunity to ask questions and offer opinions on the tentative contract agreement. Individuals are then asked to vote, usually by secret ballot, on the tentative agreement. Absentee ballots may also be available so that everyone has an opportunity to vote. 

A majority of votes determines if the contract is ratified or rejected. The management team generally seeks approval from the school board. If the tentative agreement is ratified by both sides, then the parties have a new (or successor) agreement. If the tentative contract agreement is not ratified — by either party — the teams usually go back to the bargaining table and continue negotiations. They negotiate until they are able to bring back a new tentative agreement for a vote.

4. Resolving a contract dispute.

If the parties are not able to reach an agreement, state law generally specifies how the dispute can be resolved.

5. Changing or clarifying the contract.

With the agreement of both parties, any section of a ratified contract can be revised during the term of the contract. In many districts, labor and management representatives meet regularly during the term of the contract to talk about and resolve issues of mutual concern, often through an established joint labor-management committee. In addition, either at the bargaining table or during the life of a successor contract, the parties can create Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) related to a specific issue. The benefit of the MOU is that it gives the parties an opportunity to reach a temporary agreement on an issue that is important to both the union and the employer.

How Can I Get Involved?

The Association exists to help you and your students — and is stronger if you are involved! Here's how you can work with the Union in your school:

1. Meet your Association/building representative (AR).

If your local Association is not part of the school orientation, the Association will often have a table at the meeting. Meet your Association representative/steward, who works in your building. Make sure you have that person’s contact information, as well as that of the state affiliate’s staff person, often called a UniServ, who provides support to the local membership. 

2. Contact your AR if you need assistance or have a question.

If you have a concern, contact your AR as soon as possible. She/he may be able to answer your question, resolve your concern or, if necessary, refer you to the local president or the UniServ for further assistance. 

3. Read your contract and understand your rights.

Read your collective bargaining agreement or, in states without bargaining rights, your relevant policy guidelines. Be aware of your rights. If you have questions, ask your Association representative or more experienced colleagues. Attend local Association meetings.

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.