This paper examines the extent of bargaining concessions in recession through investigating the effects of union bargaining on pay, job security and workforce composition. Drawing on an original survey (n = 400) of workplace level trade union bargaining units in England, the authors employed latent class analysis to establish three groups of bargaining units on the basis of pay outcomes achieved. Linear regression analysis with moderation effects investigated whether pay rises at or above inflation in conjunction with shifts in bargaining priorities was associated with decreases in perceived job security and changes in the composition of the workforce. Around a quarter of sampled units, concentrated mostly in decentralised bargaining units in the private sector, achieved pay rises at or above the inflation rate during an economic downturn. Pay rises at or above inflation in workplaces severely affected by recession triggered changes in bargaining priorities requiring some concessions, notably in terms of employees’ job security. That said, across the sample, achieving pay rises was associated with improved perception of job security and lesser use of contingent labour. The findings uncover a subset of bargaining units able to secure positive outcomes for workers against a hostile economic tide, whilst demonstrating that concession bargaining is not inevitable but rather contingent on the micro-environments in which union bargaining takes place.