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The Art of Collective Bargaining in British Columbia

David M. Brown

Co-Founder + Partner
January 31, 2024

Collective bargaining is a pivotal component of any labour relations system. In British Columbia, this process is not just a standard practice but a legally protected right that empowers employees and their unions to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment with their employers.


The first step in this complex dance is the notice to bargain, a formal request by either the union or the employer to initiate collective bargaining. The Labour Relations Code of British Columbia mandates that this notice must be served a minimum of four months before the expiry of the existing collective agreement. This crucial step initiates the bargaining process and sets the stage for future negotiations.


Preparation for bargaining is an intensive process which demands thoroughness from both parties. The union usually surveys its members to pinpoint key issues, such as wage increases, benefits, or working conditions. These are then prioritized by the union’s bargaining committee, which develops a negotiation strategy. Simultaneously, the employer must also prepare by reviewing its financial position, assessing operational needs, and formulating a response strategy.


Where can the parties find leverage in their bargaining? One major factor can be the state of the economy. A robust economy might embolden a union to push for better terms, while an economic downturn might strengthen the employer’s argument for restraint. Comparisons to similar workplaces can also provide a significant bargaining chip – unions and employers often use industry standards to argue for their respective positions.


Bargaining strategies can be as varied as the parties involved. Some might opt for a more collaborative approach, focusing on problem-solving and creating win-win solutions. Others may adopt a competitive stance, aiming to maximize their own gains. Regardless of the strategy chosen, maintaining open lines of communication, displaying flexibility, and demonstrating a commitment to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement are key elements.


Negotiations usually revolve around two broad categories of items: monetary and non-monetary. Monetary items relate to economic aspects such as wages, bonuses, and benefits. Non-monetary items, meanwhile, relate to conditions of employment such as working hours, safety standards, and dispute resolution procedures. Both hold significant importance and contribute to the overall quality of work life.


If negotiations reach a deadlock, job action such as a strike by the union or a lockout by the employer may ensue. These actions are critical tools that can leverage pressure on the other party to concede to demands. However, they are typically last resorts, indicative of failed negotiations and often lead to financial and operational challenges for both parties. They can also have longstanding negative implications on relations between the union and the employer.


In conclusion, collective bargaining in British Columbia is a complex but essential process that significantly shapes the province’s labour landscape. Understanding the importance of timely notice to bargain, comprehensive preparation, effective strategies, and the distinction between monetary and non-monetary items will enable unions and employers to navigate this process more effectively. The ultimate goal remains to reach an agreement that respects workers’ rights while ensuring organisational sustainability.


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