Helping Employers and Workers Build Relationships and Reach Agreements

One of the biggest challenges facing workers when they organize a union is reaching an initial collective bargaining agreement with their employer. New research confirms that only 36% of newly-organized units have a collective bargaining agreement within the first year, and 66% within three years. This delay in securing a binding, enforceable contract covering wages, hours and working conditions frustrates workers and undermines the collective bargaining process. Supporting this process helps further the Department’s mission to protect workers because unionized workers are more knowledgeable about their rights and empowered to act on them.

Bar graph illustrating First Contact Rate
Source:  Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner,  (Sept. 14, 2022), p. 16. (Sept. 14, 2022), p. 16.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) joined forces in an effort to assist both workers and employers in newly-organized units build a positive labor-management relationship and successfully reach a first collective bargaining agreement. We talked with Jennifer Abruzzo, General Counsel of the NLRB and Javier Ramirez, Deputy Director of Field Operations at the FMCS, about this initiative.

Tell us about the first contract initiative – what is it?

Jennifer Abruzzo: We are seeing workers organize at high rates. The number of election petitions was up 53% last year. The problem is that once a union is certified, it takes well over a year to reach a collective bargaining agreement. The goal of our labor law is stability in the workplace, which is undermined by delay in reaching an agreement. So, we partnered with FMCS to help the parties with the bargaining process. Every month we send a list of newly-certified units to FMCS, and FMCS reaches out to offer services. We also alert FMCS to situations where bad-faith bargaining has been charged, so that FMCS can reach out and try to help the parties.   

Javier Ramirez: Since the program started, we’ve assigned mediators to work with the parties in more than 700 newly-organized units. We provide training and help the parties build a constructive bargaining relationship. Sometimes the parties have been through a contentious election process and then have to pivot and sit down at the table and talk with each other, which can be challenging. We work with the parties to encourage discussions before exchanging formal proposals so they can identify common interests and goals. We have found that often times the parties don’t need a mediator right away – what they really need is training on the process. FMCS provides these services at no cost to the parties.

How have your agencies prepared FMCS staff for this initiative?

Abruzzo: We’ve helped train FMCS mediators on the law of collective bargaining – what are permissive, mandatory, and illegal subjects, what the process requires, etc.   

Ramirez: The training from the NLRB has been very helpful. Our mediators are learning and are enjoying this additional outreach to the parties. We are also working with the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Federal Services Impasse Panel on outreach and training.

How do companies and workers benefit from this initiative?

Abruzzo: This initiative helps promote industrial peace and stable labor-management relations, which is the goal of the National Labor Relations Act. There is a large body of research and experience showing that collective bargaining produces positive results when it comes to safety, worker training, worker retention, and many other important measures.   

Ramirez: By investing time on the front end in building a positive labor-management relationship, the parties save a lot of time in the bargaining process. Both employers and workers benefit when they take a problem-solving approach and don’t feel like they always have to be guarding themselves.

What would you like employers, workers, and unions to know about this initiative?

Ramirez: Try it! It’s available at no cost, and there’s nothing to lose in trying.   

Abruzzo: Collective bargaining doesn’t need to be adversarial. We are here to help build better, stronger collective bargaining relationships.

For more information on the NLRB/FMCS first contract initiative, click here. 


Cassandra Robertson is acting deputy assistant secretary for research and evaluation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy.  


Lynn Rhinehart is a senior counselor in the Office of the Secretary.