- Kathleen Vande Kieft
Updated April 2013
For reasons of political issues that go back more than a hundred years, this concept is used somewhat differently in different countries. In the U.S., the term "labor-management conflict" generally refers to disputes between an employer and a group of employees, while a conflict between an employer and a single employee acting alone is usually referred to as an "employment" dispute. An organized labor union is usually involved in labor- management conflicts, though these conflicts can be as basic as two employees approaching a supervisor with a shared complaint about overtime or some other working condition.
Many conflicts in the workplace involve groups other than organized unions; see also workplace conflict and employment conflict. In the U.S., groups raising race or gender equity issues with an employer are more often described as engaged in "employment" than in "labor" conflicts, unless a union is also involved. This is because U.S. laws requiring employers to deal fairly with unions, and laws requiring employers not to discriminate on grounds of race, gender, or certain other criteria, are part of different legal frameworks supervised by different government agencies. In other countries, the pattern can be quite different.
Employees who decide to act together to raise a problem with their management, whether through a union or just as an informal group, need to know how labor-management conflicts are typically handled, and what their rights — and management's — are. More regular users of this concept, of course, are professional labor and management representatives, and elected union stewards and other officials as well as elected members of public bodies that deal with employee groups, such as school boards.
Initially, conflict may arise when an employer refuses to recognize a union as representative of its employees; in the U.S., these disputes are usually resolved by an employee election supervised by a government agency. More common are contract disputes and grievances. Contract disputes occur when a union contract covering a group of employees is about to expire and the parties disagree about the terms of a new one. Usually wages, health insurance, and other economic issues are at the center of these conflicts, but sometimes they are about other issues, such as seniority, hours, sick leave, overtime, etc.
Grievances are objections that employees make about the way an employer is handling an existing contract. A typical grievance accuses the employer of doing something that violates the union contract, such as firing an employee without "just cause." The union and employer will often negotiate at successively higher levels until the grievance is resolved by the union dropping it, by management conceding it, or by a compromise. Grievances which cannot be resolved by negotiation are typically submitted to arbitration for a final decision; some contracts also use mediation.
A common type of labor-management conflict occurs when a contract governing a group of employees is about to expire. Typically, the negotiations over the terms of a new contract will be lengthy; although the vast majority of these are resolved without a strike, a significant number run some risk of a strike as the parties compete to get the best deal possible for their side. It is not uncommon for the parties to meet dozens of times, and still to need a mediator as the deadline gets close.