What Is Collective Bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process by which employers and employees sit down to discuss the terms and conditions of employment. These discussions lead to a collective bargaining agreement (employment contract) that outlines wages, hours, and working conditions.

A collective bargaining agreement, sometimes referred to as a “union contract,” is a written legal contract between the employer and the and a union representing the employees. The agreement is the result of a collaborative process between the employer and employee regarding topics such as wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. The process creates a structured environment for employers and employees to discuss workplace issues and terms and conditions of employment through collaboration and mutual respect.

Collective Bargaining Talking Points 

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  • Collective bargaining provides a collaborative approach to workplace problem-solving.
    Collective bargaining provides a framework for employee/employer collaboration and cooperation. Through collaboration and mutual respect, employers and employees can develop a collective bargaining agreement that is reflective of the shared value of the community and delivering high-quality services to the citizens.
  • Collective bargaining leads to increased safety for residents and service enhancements.
    Fire fighters are public safety advocates and experts. We are committed to delivering the highest quality fire and emergency medical services to the residents and taxpayers.  Collective bargaining gives the public safety experts, your fire fighters, a voice in how these services are delivered to our community. Community safety is our number one priority, and we will continually advocate for the highest quality services for the citizens.
  • Collective bargaining increases workplace efficiencies.
    The collective bargaining process promotes workplace efficiency. Through collective bargaining, employees have a structured and organized process to bring innovative and cost-saving ideas to management. By its very nature, collective bargaining promotes transparency. Local government transparency will often lead to increased efficiency and is always good public policy.
  • Collective bargaining recruits, retains, and engages employees.
    The healthiest workplaces are those in which employees are valued, respected, and feel that shared values exist across the organization. Through collective bargaining, employees know their voice is heard and they are partners in a collaborative decision-making process. Studies have shown that workplaces with collective bargaining agreements have a lower turnover rate and higher employee engagement. Collective bargaining will help to recruit and retain a diverse and talented workforce because the employees know their voice is valued.

Collective Bargaining Facts

  • Collective bargaining is a straightforward process of collaboration and negotiation over wages and working conditions.
    The US Department of Labor defines collective bargaining as “the mechanism or process for an organized group of workers (‘labor’) and their employer (‘management’) to pursue mutual agreement over workplace issues. The results of these labor-management negotiations are contained in a collective bargaining agreement.”1 Collective bargaining provides a structure for employers and employees to communicate with each other about their concerns and challenges. Fostering this communication helps labor and management work together in the best interest of the city, department, staff, and the community. Collective bargaining provides a process and voice, not an outcome.
  • There is a long history of providing collective bargaining rights to workers in the United States.
    The freedom to assemble is in the first Amendment of the Constitution and part of our Democratic tradition. These rights were further codified over 80 years ago for private sector workers through passage of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The NLRA states that it “is declared to be the policy of the United States to… protect[] the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 151.
  • Fire fighter collective bargaining maintains local control.
    There is no federal role in fire fighter collective bargaining. The US Department of Labor, National Labor Relations Board or the Federal Labor Relations Authority have no role in the collective bargaining process. From beginning to end, collective bargaining is controlled by local and state officials and the jurisdiction and the body responsible for budgeting always has the final say.
  • When fire fighters have a say in their employment through collective bargaining, employee morale is higher, there is less turnover, and there are fewer worker/management disputes.
    A Cornell University study of public sector collective bargaining found that “cooperation results in improvements in both the delivery of public services and the quality of work life.”2 A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute noted that expanding collective bargaining rights is “particularly important at a moment when state and local governments face staffing shortages and serious challenges to recruiting and retaining qualified employees.”3
  • The ability of fire fighters to talk about their job with employers protects public safety.
    Fire fighters and emergency medical personnel risk their lives every day to protect the public. They deserve the right to discuss workplace issues within the framework that collective bargaining provides. Collective bargaining gives fire fighters the voice to share how their experiences on the ground can help improve public safety through changes in department policies.
  • Collective bargaining rights improve fire fighter safety and save lives.
    Collective bargaining has produced measurable staffing, training, equipment and health and safety improvements throughout the nation’s fire departments – resulting in safer fire fighters and improved local emergency response capabilities. A 2021 academic study found that states with expanded collective bargaining rights for firefighters had fewer firefighter fatalities.4 A recent report from the US Department of Labor identified unionized workplaces as having “less traumatic injuries and fatalities”, “better health and safety practices”, and “lower COVID-19 infection rates.”5 Another study in the American Journal of Public Health identified that “collective bargaining contracts promote public health.”6

1U.S. Department of Labor. Unions 101, (2022), https://www.dol.gov/general/workcenter/unions-101.
2Brock, Jonathan; Lipsky, David B. Public Sector Collective Bargaining and the Imperative for Service Delivery: An Overview, (2003), Available at: https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/75991.
4Wells, Dominic. Do collective bargaining rights save lives? A rare event analysis of firefighter fatalities in the United States, RHCPP, Vol.13, No. 2, at 100-117 (2022). (“Using state-level data from 2009 through 2018, this analysis shows that states with duty-to-bargain rights for firefighters have fewer firefighter fatalities than those without duty-to-bargain rights.”). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/rhc3.12224.
5U.S. Department of Labor. How Unions and Unionized Workplaces Advance the Mission of the Department of Labor (2022). https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/general/labortaskforce/docs/WORK-fs-DOL-Unions-v6.pdf
6Hagedorn, J. The Role of Labor Unions in Creating Working Conditions That Promote Public Health. Am J Public Health. 2016 June; 106(6): 989–995. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4880255/.

Mapping Collective Bargaining Across the U.S.

Because fire fighters are not allowed to participate in strikes or other work stoppages, many states have adopted laws that provide special provisions for bargaining disputes involving fire fighters or public employees more generally. Other states, however, have no laws providing such measures or even specifically allowing municipalities to bargain with fire fighters over wages, hours, and working conditions.

Below, we have broken the laws of all 50 states into six general categories.

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Category I: Collective Bargaining – with binding arbitration.
States allow fire fighters to bargain collectively with their employers and provide for binding arbitration procedures when an impasse is reached.

*Utah – non-binding arbitration for salary and wage disputes.

Total number of states: 25

Category II: Collective Bargaining – non-binding arbitration or fact-finding.
States allow fire fighters to bargain collectively, but provide only non-binding procedures when an impasse has been reached.

*Florida – some Locals have binding arbitration.

Total number of states: 8

Category III: Local option by state statute.
States have statutes allowing localities to adopt their own proceedings for bargaining with fire fighters and for dealing with resulting impasses.

*Kentucky (guaranteed by state statute for Lexington and Louisville only, no binding arbitration)
*Maryland (local can adopt binding arbitration or not)

Total number of states: 8

Category IV: Local option without statute.
States have no collective bargaining laws that affect fire fighters. In these states, localities may bargain collectively with fire fighters if they so choose.

Total number of states: 6

Category V: Collective Bargaining – contracts unenforceable.
State laws are similar to category IV states, except that courts in these states have ruled that any collective bargaining contracts involving municipalities are unenforceable.

Total number of states: 2

Category VI: Collective Bargaining – illegal.
States have statutes that specifically prohibit fire fighters from participating in collective bargaining with their municipality.

Total number of states: 1

IAFF History in Collective Bargaining

Affording all workers, the right to organize and bargain collectively is fundamentally essential to any union. The passage of the Wagner Act as part of FDR’s New Deal allowed private sector workers to enjoy collective bargaining, but public sector workers, including fire fighters, were excluded for political and constitutional reasons.

Starting in the 1950’s, efforts spearheaded by the IAFF and its affiliates focused on winning collective bargaining statutes at the state and local levels. In some states, the IAFF’s efforts have proved to be successful, beginning with New York’s Taylor Law in 1958, which allows bargaining for state’s public employees. Fire fighters started winning legislative battles, referendums, and state constitutional assurances for bargaining rights. Some states provide basic rights to organize and collectively bargain through non-binding dispute mechanisms, while other apply full binding arbitration methods.

Through the years, many states and localities still don’t provide these rights to fire fighters, and some vehemently oppose it (primarily in the south and some western states). There are 18 states that do not have guarantee bargaining rights to all fire fighters. Although, some of those 18 states do permit bargaining at the local level.

From the time that the IAFF delegates at the 1994 IAFF Convention in Detroit, Michigan passed a resolution making national collective bargaining the IAFF’s top legislative priority and it was reaffirmed at the 2016 IAFF Convention. It is a mandate that remains in force to this day. The legislative efforts to obtain national collective bargaining have endured a long-tortured history since 1994, but a national collective bargaining bill remains the top priority of the IAFF.

Federal Collective Bargaining

The IAFF strongly supports the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act and encourages members of Congress to cosponsor the bill:

Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2023, pending introduction
Sponsors: Representative Pete Stauber (R-MN); Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI)


Fire and EMS departments benefit from productive partnerships between employers and employees. Studies have shown that communities with strong labor-management relations enjoy more effective and efficient delivery of emergency services. Recently, this cooperation enabled employers and workers to confront budgetary constraints, staffing challenges, and shortages of personal protective equipment amid the Coronavirus pandemic.

The best way to promote this cooperation is through an established collective bargaining framework. Legislation providing these rights to fire fighters and EMS personnel has long received strong bipartisan support in Congress due to its key role in establishing better staffed, equipped, and trained fire departments.

Congress has extended collective bargaining laws to private sector employees, transportation workers and federal government employees. One of the few groups of workers not covered by federal law are state and local government employees — including fire and EMS personnel. Ensuring fire and EMS personnel have basic collective bargaining rights is consistent with the increasing role of fire fighters and EMS personnel in protecting our national security and responding to emergencies across state lines.

Local and state governments would still maintain control over their own policies as the legislation would not interfere with right-to-work laws or existing labor agreements. In fact, many states would not need to make any changes.

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act would give fire and EMS personnel basic collective bargaining rights in states that currently do not provide them and protect these rights in states where they exist but could be repealed.

The legislation gives states wide flexibility to develop their own laws based on the following minimum standards:

  • The right to form and join a labor organization and to have that organization recognized through a written contract.
  • The right to bargain over working conditions, hours, and wages.
  • The ability to resolve disputes through an impasse resolution mechanism and to enforce it the agreement.
  • The legislation does not permit strikes or lockouts by fire fighters and EMS personnel.

Key Points

The Cooperation Act enjoys broad bipartisan support while protecting states’ rights

  • Legislation providing collective bargaining rights for fire fighters and EMS personnel has enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives passed such legislation in 2007 by a vote of 314 to 97 with a majority of each party in favor.
  • The bill gives maximum flexibility for states to craft their own laws and enables fire fighters and EMS personnel to sit down and talk with their employers. The Cooperation Act respects the uniqueness of each state’s employment needs by prohibiting fire fighters or EMS personnel from striking, maintaining states’ right-to-work laws, and enabling local jurisdictions to make public safety decisions.

Collective bargaining helps protect public safety

  • The federal government has a vested interest in improving local emergency response capabilities by supporting adequate staffing, training, and equipment. Beyond “local” emergencies, preparedness for major interstate emergency incidents, such as natural disasters and terrorist acts, relies on effective local fire and EMS agencies. This readiness is best supported when first responders can work directly with their local government leadership to ensure their needs are met.
  • Fire fighters’ ability to talk about their job with employers protects public safety and promotes preparedness. Collective bargaining has produced measurable improvements to staffing, training, equipment, and health and safety throughout the nation’s fire departments. The benefits from this improved coordination are illustrated by the fact that civilian fire fatality rates are, on average, lower in states that provide these basic rights to fire and EMS personnel.

The Cooperation Act is a matter of fairness for public safety

  • Fire fighters and emergency medical personnel risk their lives every day to protect the public. They deserve the same rights to discuss workplace issues with their employer that the federal government grants most other workers.
  • The United States has a long history of providing collective bargaining rights to workers. The freedom to assemble is established by the first Amendment to the Constitution and is key to our democracy. These rights were further codified over 80 years ago for private sector workers through passage of the National Labor Relations Act. Those working on the frontlines to protect our communities must be treated the same.

The Cooperation Act strengthens public safety retirement and wages

  • Due to the dangerous nature of the profession, fire fighters often are forced to retire early, putting an emphasis on smart retirement planning. Studies show that employers and employees who engage in collective bargaining achieve fairer pension contributions and improved retirement security.
  • Collective bargaining also strengthens earnings for those still on the job and ensures they receive a fair wage for their work.
  • Eight of the top 10 states, in terms of disposable income, recognize public employees’ rights to collectively bargain. Conversely, nine of the bottom 10 states in terms of per capita income do not allow collective bargaining for all public sector workers.

Sample Contract Language

The IAFF Model Contract Language Manual provides actual examples of contract language extracted from IAFF local union agreements to assist IAFF affiliates in preparing their contract proposals and drafting collective bargaining agreements. Sample language contained within this book is broken down into three categories:

  1. Boiler plate language – ensures the individual employee protection by the continuing existence of the union. Such language is inclusive, but not limited to issues such as: dues checkoff; seniority; union recognition; grievance procedure; savings clause and union activity provisions.
  2. Economic and benefit language – addresses benefits to be received by employees. Such language is inclusive, but not limited to issues such as: health insurance; hours of work; overtime; and paid leave.
  3. Miscellaneous language – addresses employee working conditions. Such language is inclusive, but not limited to issues such as: ADA/ADEA; drug testing; labor-management committees; and shift exchange.

In addition to actual examples of contract language, we have also incorporated model contract language developed by the IAFF where applicable. It should be noted that the model language is a starting point during the negotiating process and the “finished product” will most likely resemble the actual examples provided in this manual.

You can find collective bargaining agreements from IAFF affiliates from every state and province in the IAFF Contract Library.


  • Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research – The study’s objective was to examine the impact of collective bargaining for public sector workers on hourly earnings and wages. The study authors found that mandatory collective bargaining laws increased the wages of public sector workers by 6.1 percentage point.
  • U.S. Department of Labor – What is a labor union? Who has the legal right to organize? Who protects these rights? What is collective bargaining and why is it good for unions? Get the facts about unions, workplace organizing, and the federal agencies that protect these rights.
  • National Labor Relations Board – The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency created in 1935 and vested with the power to safeguard employees’ rights to organize, engage with one another to seek better working conditions, choose whether or not to have a collective bargaining representative negotiate on their behalf with their employer, or refrain from doing so. This link provides a sample collective bargaining agreement.
  • National Labor Relations Act – Employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
  • AFL-CIO Collective Bargaining Fact Sheet – Data on collective bargaining laws around the US, public employee collective bargaining figures, and additional info on how to form a union and what a union does.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures – Collective bargaining database with state statutes broken down by state. Does not account for special state bills recognizing collective bargaining for fire fighters.