How long does bargaining take?!?!

Sep 24, 2021

“How long does bargaining take?!” exclaimed one exasperated operations manager as we were closing out a meeting and booking in the next.  I shared his frustration because had we been meeting face-to-face, we probably would have reached conclusion that day, but the challenges of video meetings were proving problematic.  To put it in to further context, we’d had three meetings in person, and one two-hour video meeting and were booking in another video meeting for this week.

I could see that my normal answer of “it takes as long as it takes” was not going to satisfy in this instance.

While bargaining does take as long as it takes, there are some indicators as to how long that might be.  The following considerations need to be taken into account –

    1.  How many issues are on the table?

What murmurs and rumblings are you hearing from your people?  What are your people asking for in their claims?  How many claims are union claims vs. employee claims?  Is there something else driving the issues?  What is the company looking to change this time around?  Or are parties reasonably happy with how the current agreement is working?

    1. How long did it take in the past?

Past bargaining is also a fairly good indicator of how long you could reasonably expect it to take this time.  If your past bargaining was lengthy, is there anything specific that attributed to that?  What were the sticking points?  Was either party looking for significant change?  Was there industrial action?  What caused the industrial action?  Who was part of the team?

    1. How prepared are you?

Bargaining can flow much smoother when you are prepared.  You’ve got your costings at hand, you’ve reviewed the market pressures and you’ve considered all possible outcomes through the bargaining process to settlement.  Are you giving this the due consideration that it is worth, given the value of the agreement to the organisation and your people?

Back to the agreement at hand, he pushes on with his question – “but how long does bargaining take normally for you?” 

Now, I am not the best person to ask that particular question to.  I typically get involved in more difficult and complex bargaining because if it was straightforward, you wouldn’t typically need external support sitting right there with you at the table – you would keep me at the end of the phone instead.

It did cause me to reflect on my longest bargaining round which went on for two years (backdated!).  It was interesting (and frustrating!) because the complexities were not actually union or employee related but driven by internal organisational politics, and a change in CEO partway through the process – which adds a whole other layer of challenge to my role.

But that’s a story for another day.



Anna Holmes is a collective bargaining and industrial relations specialist extraordinaire. For the past 15 years she’s worked with companies of all sizes both here in New Zealand and Australia.