Bargaining in a Recession

There’s no rocket science to a contract campaign during a recession. But it is different. You can even come out the other side with a stronger union. Here are a few ideas on how.

1. Start now. Even if your contract isn’t up for two years and you think you have some lag time. Or you think your employer isn’t going to be affected for a while. You can’t wait. Can’t.

An aggressive employer is going to use the recession as an excuse to come after your collective agreement. They won’t wait to see how the recession hits your workplace. Or even if.

Do everything you would normally do, but start way sooner, and do much more of it.

2. Inoculate your co-workers. They are continually exposed to stories in the media about how workers somewhere have taken concessions. Think you’ve heard it all about GM? Think again. Municipal workers in Windsor, Ontario, have been on strike for two months over demands for concessions on retiree benefits that use the downturn in the auto industry as the excuse.

To overcome the demoralizing effects of the media and an employer campaign, you need to prepare before it really sinks in. Start collecting success stories. Find workers who were around in the last recession and collect their stories about bargaining then. Even if the stories don’t have a happy ending, knowing how the employer bargains and campaigns (because they will campaign) will be useful.

3. Whether it’s on a wiki or on a blackboard in somebody’s basement, there has to be a plan. One that’s visible, something that can be checked regularly for a progress report. Something with dates, to-do lists, assigned responsibilities, and goals. Note when it will be revisited and amended.

4. Organize the organized. Your co-workers need to be more mobilized, more invested, and more in control of what happens all the way through bargaining than they have ever been before. Sit down with your union’s activists, walk through the process step by step, and maximize their input and control starting from today.

Inventory the union’s resources. Stewards. Research. Communication tools like newsletters, e-mail lists, text-message trees. Map the workplace and start identifying the concerns your co-workers have about this round of bargaining. Who has them? Why? Where are they? Develop your responses and test them.

5. Organize the unorganized. Non-union workers in or connected to your workplace? Develop or check in with your contacts. The insecurity a recession generates can push workers to take an interest in organizing, especially when the unionized workers do well. If they can organize before your bargaining starts, you’ll all be better off.

6. Turn it around on your employer. Is this an opportunity to take the offensive? With many employers, especially in the public sector, this may be your chance to go over the books and the employer’s admin costs with a fine-tooth comb.

In the last recession, Toronto area municipal workers were able to contract in services by arguing that cities were amortizing the cost of roads equipment too quickly. The equipment was lasting up to 10 years but was off the books in four, raising the apparent cost of doing the work in-house.



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If cuts are coming, make sure that management takes more than its fair share. Look closely at administrative overhead, especially anything contracted out. Can your co-workers do that work? At what cost? (See Labor Notes October 2008, “Why Privatize? We Can Run It Better!”)

7. Victory isn’t always measured in dollars and cents. If you’re going to get less than you should in compensation, is there anything else you can substitute? Try for language gains or increases in “buried” cost like vacations during a round of recession bargaining.

CUPE social service workers in Ontario, bargaining now, are making big gains in health and safety language and protection from contracting out by coordinating across the province. In more than half the cases they’ve even won pensions for the first time. Better yet, workers are talking about issues that usually don’t get a lot of attention compared with compensation. They’re expanding their bargaining horizons—permanently.

8. Your employer playing nice guy? Proposing job-sharing for junior workers or exit packages or buyouts for the more senior? If there’s even a chance of this, prepare in advance.

Job-sharing may sound like a great idea to workers worried about losing all of their income, but in most cases layoffs come anyway. Unemployment benefits will be based on income prior to layoff. Does it make sense to job-share if it will mean less in benefits after layoff?

Be prepared to walk workers through the costs and benefits of exit packages. They rarely work in the members’ favor, and they foster a focus on individual solutions, not collective ones. If your workforce has a two-tier wage set-up, the union is further weakened when senior workers leave.

Both job-sharing and exit packages can hugely affect workplace morale and mobilization levels. They can make a cost-cutting employer seem humane.

9. Research, research, research. Recession bargaining can be more technical than we’re used to. Know your employer’s markets, customers, and suppliers, its funders and clients.

10. Know the impact on your community if your employer gets concessions. Will potential allies be affected? Don’t overlook a city council worried about its tax base or even a chamber of commerce concerned about lost local buying power.

11. Don’t panic. This isn’t the first recession; it won’t be the last. Workers and unions have gotten through them before; we’ll get through this one. Start your plan early, mobilize your members, do your homework.

Your co-workers will be energized, workplace solidarity will be high, and once the pressure eases you can go from holding the line to moving forward. Use the recession to build organizing capacity for the next round of bargaining.

Derek Blackadder is a Canadian Union of Public Employees national rep.