Important decisions affecting the lives of thousands of workers are made in secret by small groups of men who have disturbingly similar views about the roles of workers in our society. In hotel rooms, restaurants, on golf courses and inside corporate offices around North America, backroom dealing between union and management officials has gone on for decades and is commonplace within certain industries.
This is a dimension of North American labour relations that you aren't going to read about on any official union web site or study in a labour relations course. It's one that we need to understand and explode if we are ever to take back our unions and engage the future.
Not all unions engage in this behavior but some most certainly do. The deals that they make can't be easily undone, diminish workers' power and create dependencies on the part of union officials that will be exploited repeatedly by their management counterparts.
Backroom dealing happens when representatives of labour and management enter into agreements that have not been authorized by the union's members. Done without their knowledge or approval, these deals often have significant impact on the members' working lives. Almost always, this impact is not favorable to them.
Backroom dealing can cover a wide a range of issues. Voluntary recognition arrangements, commitments about the intended outcomes of collective bargaining, grievance settlements, understandings about which groups of workers the union will/won't organize and how far the union will push certain issues are a few examples but there are others. There are as many potential items on the backroom agenda as there are issues that labour and management officials would rather resolve without input from the shop floor.
This Ontario Labour Relations Board decision tells of a deal that severely curtailed union members' right to strike in exchange for voluntary recognition. In this affidavit, a company official tells about a backroom deal for a cut-rate collective agreement. The union even agreed to set up a new local in which to house the discount deal.
But few backroom deals ever come with a paper trail. Most union members don't know about backroom dealing and those who have heard about it, know little of what goes on there or why. Mainstream labour leaders will not acknowledge that it exists. Sure there are gentlemanly discussions that take place with management representatives on certain issues, but the members have the final say. That's the official story and it's a crock. In many instances, the members haven't got a clue what's being discussed, why or what it will mean to them.
On the rare occasion that some indiscreet union rep gets caught going out the back door, the standard defense is that it's necessary, on occasion, to have private "off-the-record" discussions with management. There are some things that are just too sensitive, too political, to be addressed in public. There are just some things that management won't talk about publicly so we need to speak privately. Labour relations are about labour-management relationships after all and sometimes in a good relationship you have to speak privately. Workers are assured that, while hunkered down in the backroom, the union is working hard to advance or protect their interests. The outcome of the discussions, however pitiful, is presented as "The best we could do and we could have done a lot worse, make no mistake".
Whatever positive spin may be put on backroom dealing, there is nothing about it that is helpful for workers. Real issues can and are discussed publicly. Bad news about a company's performance is rarely ever a surprise. Corporate managers do not share their secrets with union guys, unless there is a reason. Workers are excluded from the discussions because if they were included, there is a high probability that they would disagree with whatever arrangement is being hammered out. In some cases, they would be outraged. What workers don't know can and does hurt them.
In the backroom, whatever may be on the agenda, management has the upper hand. The power of the union is with its members. With the members excluded from the discussions, union representatives are effectively disabled. They are sitting ducks to all manner of manipulation, deception and self-serving temptation.
What goes on in the backroom is - quite often - shameful, especially when we consider that there is no need for union officials to be there in the first place.
While some apologists for backroom dealing argue that the labour relations system - with its emphasis on labour-management cooperation - causes this kind of behavior, that's a lame excuse. The system creates the conditions that encourage backroom dealing but it's the people who do the deals. Those people, each and every one, choose to go there and choose to do the deals they do.
Not everyone in the labour relations field gets to the backroom, even in industries where backroom dealing is common. Admittance is restricted to the key players and their most trusted hangers-on. Many are called but few are chosen. Those who are chosen, go willingly, often considering it a good career move.
If we are to take back our unions and engage the future, backroom dealing must end. If we are to end backroom dealing it is necessary to understand what goes on there and why. We need to know what motivates the players and to hold the players accountable for their actions.
Until quite recently, no one who has been there has been willing to talk about it. Fortunately, that's beginning to change.
In our new series, The Backroom Chronicles, we are going to tell you some real live stories about backroom dealing as described by people who were there, saw, heard, wheeled, dealed and want to talk about it.
The accounts you are going to read are fictionalized. The names of people, places and organizations have been changed but the events are real as are the motives and behaviors of the players.
In each segment, we will go into some detail about what was dealt and why but we'll also focus on the people in the backroom, so that we can understand them as people - so that they can no longer hide behind their role as "representative of this company or that union." We want you to understand what they're doing, what motivates them, the dynamics of their relationships and generally, the kinds of guys they are. In the end, that is what they are: People who make choices and who should be accountable for their choices.
It's time to break the silence and switch on the lights in the labour relations backroom. Our first backroom tale is called The Labour Day Parade. It will be presented in three installments at roughly bi-weekly intervals.
One cautionary note: Our intention is to present these stories without glossing anything over. We want you to understand the realities of the backroom, including the especially ugly ones. The low regard in which the dealers on both sides hold working people will become evident quickly. That's real and needs to be understood.
I invite you to discuss these stories with me and with our other contributors in the MFD forum. If you have a backroom story of your own to tell, please get in touch.
Go to p.01: The Labour Day Parade