Steward's Corner: How to Fight Concessions

cartoon where boss is angry because workers suggested firing management instead of concessions

This cartoon appeared in our popular 1983 book, Concessions and How to Beat Them, now available for free download at

We know they’re coming: bosses are going to be pushing for concessions. Many employers are facing financial pain. Tax revenue is missing in cities and states; hotels, restaurants, airlines, and universities are all hurting.

Other union employers are doing just fine, of course: UPS comes to mind, and supermarkets.

Financial hardship or not, bosses look for opportunities to weaken the union, and concessions are a good place to start. After the 2008 financial crisis, some unions went into bargaining in good faith, agreeing to concessions with the hope that in good times, workers would be paid back. Ha!

The unions that fared best then, and will now, are those that see the boss’s aggression as a chance to fight back.

What do you do when your boss puts a list of concessions on the table?

  1. Don’t take their word for it. First off, bosses are usually full of it. Don’t start off by accepting management’s story; that puts you on defense.

    Start from a position of “No.” Do your own research. Know the books better than your employer, and use what you find to fight back.

    In 2018 Los Angeles school district bargainers told teachers they were running a deficit. But the union’s own research found a nearly $2 billion surplus. During their strike, the public saw that the teachers weren’t bankrupting the district.

    Ultimately the teachers staved off the district’s attempts to increase class size and make health care two-tier. In fact, they won improvements, including new class-size protections and the hiring of additional staff.


  2. Even if there’s real financial trouble, reject the notion that it’s workers who have to sacrifice. Employers always put pressure on workers first; so do politicians. Even with a “friendly” employer, calculations will be made. Which group do we piss off? Which cuts will come with the most political risk?
  3. But union members should ask their own questions: Why is the employer in the bad situation? What else is the boss spending on? Is it, for instance, management consultants or administration, or to outsource union work? Those are alternative places to cut.

    When new leaders took over the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, the district announced it was running a $700 million deficit and CTU must open the contract or face layoffs. The district framed a narrow choice for members, offering a list of places to cut the budget—all on the backs of students and workers.

    Members were outraged and the bargaining team refused to open the contract. Yes, layoffs did follow—but it was the opening shot in a battle that has included three strikes since then. The teachers demanded full funding, issuing a report and launching a campaign for “The Schools Our Students Deserve.”

    The city kept claiming there was no more money for schools. CTU coined the phrase “broke on purpose,” pointing out how the city was diverting funds to developers and businesses. In 2016 the union forced the city to dip into a slush fund earmarked for real estate, to the tune of $88 million. And after the 2019 strike, the city agreed to add 400 nurses and social workers in the schools.

  4. Go on offense; think bigger. Don’t get backed into a corner where you’re only fighting against concessions; fight for something that puts fire in your belly.
  5. The health care giant Kaiser was pushing pension concessions on mental health care workers after the 2008 financial crisis, claiming to be short on cash. The union’s public campaign pointed out where Kaiser’s priorities were: executive bonuses and $9 million a year to the CEO.

    Workers defended their pensions, but that wasn’t all. The heart of their campaign was a fight for patients’ access to mental health care; they told how short staffing was putting patients at risk.



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    Their strike amplified their story. Members fought off the pension cuts and won some improvements on staffing, though that fight rages on.

    When the University of California was looking to undermine pensions and subcontract the work of low-wage workers, AFSCME Local 3299 members took on a years-long contract campaign involving several short strikes.


    The union did its homework, and issued a research report showing that UC administrators were raising salaries for the highest-paid employees and lowering pay at the bottom. Black and Latino workers were more likely to be in low-wage jobs or displaced by outsourcing. By the time they reached a contract this January, the workers had not only defeated the pension attack—they had also won gains, bringing some outsourced workers back in-house and restricting future subcontracting.

    No sooner had the union wrapped up that contract fight than the pandemic and recession hit. Workers (and their research department) sprang back into action.

    In June, members picketed to protest 200 cafeteria layoffs. They highlighted the fact that those laid off were almost all low-wage workers of color—and that the UC doesn’t need layoffs. Its hospitals are still earning strong revenues, it has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief, and it holds more than $10 billion in unrestricted cash reserves. Stay tuned.


    Advance demands anyone could get behind: “One Job Should Be Enough,” said Marriott hotel workers. Locomotive manufacturing workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, chose a variation on the popular teachers’ slogan, announcing they were “On Strike for the Jobs Our Communities Deserve.” A great message won’t win the fight for you, but talking to members and allies on your terms, not the boss’s, motivates them to take action.

  6. Don’t shield your members nor be the boss’s messenger. When you get the call from management, bring it to the members right away. Don’t spin the threat or lessen it. Offer them the opportunity to fight back, with a plan.
  7. Kalamazoo, Michigan, teachers were on summer break when their district announced it was taking away step increases and pushing employees to pay more for health care. The union wasted no time, blasting the news over social media and email. Teachers showed up to the next school board meeting and then picketed outside schools and organized T-shirt days during public events. The district backed off.

  8. Don’t wait for permission. Not every union is going to follow this advice. Some don’t know how or think that closed-door bargaining is the only way. Others are cozy with the boss. That doesn’t mean members can’t organize against concessions.
  9. UPS Teamster rank and filers use Vote No campaigns to push their union in bargaining. Chrysler auto workers voted no 2-1 in 2015 on a tentative agreement that included two-tier pay. They printed up protest T-shirts, rallied, and shared photos of their local leaflets and vote-no tallies. Their bargainers went back to the table and improved the deal.

    West Virginia teachers organized a statewide strike from the grassroots. Even when union officials agreed to end it on the promise of a raise, members refused to go back until the raise was in writing and voted on by legislators.


  10. Remember that fights build the union. Giving in without a fight will demoralize members at the same time they are feeling the pain of concessions, and they may blame the union.
  11. You may not win on everything if you wage a campaign to stop concessions, but if members are involved from the moment the boss mentions the word, they will know what they are up against.

    By participating in the bargaining and taking action together to say no, they’ll own the fight. Even if they don’t stop 100 percent of the cuts, they will see the progress they made from the boss’s opening demand.

    The unprecedented teacher strike wave of 2018 and 2019 showed what it looks like when workers are fed up with concessions and willing to do something about it. It’s our job to translate that energy to COVID times.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 497. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Samantha Winslow is co-director of Labor