Steward’s Corner: For Open Bargaining, Start Early and Build
In many unions, ratification of a collective bargaining agreement can leave members alienated and angry.
Sometimes members will be learning about the major features of a tentative deal for the first time. Little time is given to discussion—members are expected to approve what leadership recommends, and officers may get defensive at questions or complaints. In some unions, members know their opinion doesn’t matter and may not even bother to vote.
But there’s another way to go, to build a powerful, participatory, energized union through the bargaining process: open bargaining.
You may have heard this term used simply to mean that members can watch negotiation sessions. But to me it’s much more—maximum participation in the whole process, not just at the table.
These are practices you could push to implement in your union, whether you’re in the leadership or in a caucus that’s pushing to operate more openly and democratically.
You don’t have to wait until negotiations begin. Open bargaining can start no matter where your union is at in the bargaining cycle. At every phase, there’s a way to educate members and empower them to lead. Here’s how:
OPEN UP CONTRACT EDUCATION
Does your union run education sessions for members about specific terms and conditions in your current contract? These can be short and specific: 10-minute shop floor meetings to learn about, for example, the provisions for paid time off.
These can be offered regularly, every week or month, in person or online, and focus on the contract language that’s most relevant to the problems members are having.
It’s a chance to teach, but also to ask: What could be clarified or strengthened? What’s missing? Invite people to brainstorm new language. Keep notes.
Ask if they want to help draft new proposals for the next contract. Keep track of who is interested. Circle back, when the time comes, to form contract support committees, and invite them to contribute.
SURVEY AND CONSULT
Surveying the members to find out what they care about in a contract is essential. But I’d encourage you to think beyond a one-time survey of individual members. Contracts aren’t individual; they’re collective.
Instead, priorities should be worked out by the members who will live under the contract through dialogue, debate, compromise, and creative reworking. It’s the union’s job to bring members together for these discussions.
Schedule regular consultation chats with groups of members. Ask them to grapple with conflicting priorities; facilitate good dialogue.
As people listen to each other, shared priorities can come to the fore and minimize the feeling that members are competing with one another for a piece of the pie. This kind of “surveying” builds commitment to shared goals… and the majority needed to hold firm in bargaining.
In many unions, the members are entirely left out of drafting and revising proposals. Think how that squanders members’ potential wisdom, passion, and experience—not to mention volunteer labor!
Instead, the union should offer support—meeting space, background material, facilitation—for numerous committees to form and meet regularly.
It’s never too soon to form Contract Topic Committees. Each one is a committee of rank and filers who track a certain issue—for instance, wage structure, health insurance, schedules, evaluation and discipline, paid leave time, or health and safety—and think about what members need in that area.
Ideally, these committees draft proposals, send them around for feedback and revisions, and then birddog them during bargaining.
It gives the bargaining team a big boost to be backed up by the specific expertise of motivated members. It also keeps member priorities front and center.
BIG BARGAINING TEAM
If a bargaining team is only executive officers, staff, and lawyers, the daily experience of the members is left out.
Bargaining is often treated as an arcane skill, dependent on a few highly trained specialists. It’s not true! Good bargaining depends mainly on members who are committed to the collective welfare (not just their own needs), who want to listen, who are patient and steadfast, and who can work cooperatively despite many frustrations and challenges.
Open bargaining is best supported by a big bargaining team. The team should include members from every job title, shift, worksite, or department possible. It should include young, middle-aged, and senior workers, and workers of every identity group that’s present in your workplace—think race, gender, faith, language, and so on.
This increases the wisdom and collective vision of the team at the table. It also means there are many members experiencing bargaining firsthand, who can tell their co-workers what’s happening and bring back feedback.
If your union isn’t offering regular education sessions about bargaining, it should. You want a big pool of members who feel ready and able to join the negotiating team. The union should encourage diversity of situation and opinion, and especially the willingness to work together.
Then, elect your bargaining team! If that’s unprecedented in your union, break precedent.
Make sure these members aren’t just window dressing. It’s cynical to have a big team but also a smaller team that makes all the decisions behind the curtain. In the United Teachers Los Angeles, even with a bargaining team of 90 people representing every job title, they were able to make decisions by consensus.
BUILD TEAM RELATIONSHIPS
The bargaining team members will need to build relationships among themselves. This requires scheduling time together—months in advance of the start of negotiations—to share their values, experience, ideas, and skills, and work out possible conflicts.
There will be debate… and that’s wonderful. Unions should be laboratories for worker self-governance, including how to resolve real differences through dialogue.
For example, parents of young children may have different bargaining priorities than workers nearing retirement. Conflicts over, say, paid family leave versus pensions are best worked through by bringing people together to find a mutually acceptable set of demands.
Bargaining team members should also commit to be “ambassadors” from the table to the worksite—debriefing their co-workers after each bargaining session, promoting discussion, and soliciting opinions to guide the team forward.
OPEN UP THE TABLE
There’s a wide spectrum of how far unions go in “opening up” the actual bargaining sessions. What is feasible may depend on the history, culture, power relations, fears, and practicalities. But here are some elements to consider:
- Open sharing of all union proposals with members before they go to management;
- Open sharing of management’s proposals with members;
- Refusing any ground rule that limits free and open reporting to members;
- Comprehensive reporting after each bargaining session, with questions for member feedback;
- Permitting rank and filers to observe all bargaining sessions, either in person or online;
- Inviting rank and filers to speak at the table on specific topics, at specific times;
- Caucusing with both bargaining team and non-bargaining team members before tentatively agreeing to language;
- Prohibiting sidebar negotiations (where someone from the union team meets with management privately).
- The full tentative agreement should be available to all members, not just a summary and not just highlights.
- Plan for not less than a week for members to read, question, debate, and decide on the contract. (If you’re on strike, the timing may differ.)
- Arrange for information sessions—in person and online—that make it easy for members to participate. There should be lots of time, and a non-defensive attitude from the front of the room, for questions and discussion.
- Procedures for voting should be clear, accessible, and uniform.
- Vote results should be fully reported, both raw numbers and percentages.
We gain insights by what we live through, which can guide us—and those who come after us. But the quality of reflection can make a big difference to what is actually learned.
After a contract campaign wraps up, an “open bargaining” version of debrief means inviting all members into the dialogue—not just the bargaining team members, officers, or stewards.
Open the door wide by soliciting written feedback, making time at union meetings, and offering special debrief sessions, both in person and online.
The questions shouldn’t be limited to how members feel about the settlement. In my experience, the questions that elicit the freshest and wisest answers will be about the process—how members contributed, how they changed, what they learned, what they observed in their co-workers, and new things they learned about relations of power in the workplace.
Open bargaining isn’t a particular template or set of boxes to check. It’s more like an attitude towards democratic inclusion and empowerment of the rank-and-file members.
Think carefully about how, in your own union, given its history and conditions, you can help introduce changes that actually put members into the driver’s seat. Whether you’re a member activist, a steward, or an officer, your attitude is the real opening.
Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board.