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  • authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Jul 13, 2002

How to Bargain: Chuck the Rule Book, Farley

Organizing a union and bargain collectively, these are the two main steps that workers can - legally - take to exercise their power in the workplace. In both cases, workers' efforts are often aggressively opposed by employers. The tactics often involve threats - sometimes vague and sometimes clearly stated - of job loss. "Join a union and we'll close the plant. Give us concessions or we'll move away." These are common themes during organizing campaigns and at negotiations. More recently, these threats appear to be coming thick and fast during collective bargaining.

We have been talking about bargaining a lot this week. Within the confines of our labour relations system, bargaining is the main event for unions and union members. It is the one opportunity they legally have to improve their conditions.

The window of opportunity is limited. Bargaining can only take place at the expiry of a collective agreement. The right to strike can only be exercised after what is sometimes a lengthy process of negotiation and after the government has intervened in the dispute (through the appointment of a conciliation officer). Apart from the statutory ground rules, a multitude of bargaining protocols have evolved which, although they don't have the force of law behind them, are widely accepted by labour and management negotiators as proper bargaining behaviour. These protocols are a sort of gentlemen's book of rules intended to keep the process civilized and controlled and to discourage the exercise of workers' power.

According to the gentlemen's rules, bargaining is to take place between small groups of well-behaved representatives of both sides, under a cone of silence. Sharing detailed information about the status of negotiations with union members or with the public is frowned upon. Allowing worker members of a negotiating committee freedom to speak and engage management's representatives in discussion is considered disruptive. Demanding that management prove its claims about its financial dire straits by producing financial statements is - well - poor form. Trust is needed among the gentlemen at the table for the process to go smoothly - and that is the objective of the process from the system's perspective. We must have order, so that business can prosper. Union officials ought to take on faith that their management counterparts are playing it straight with them. Union members should wait patiently on the sidelines confident that their representatives are doing their best. Their role in the process is to accept the finished product.

The process culminates in a tentative agreement - often little better than the one that came before it and sometimes worse - which is trotted out to a membership that has had no involvement in its negotiation, no clue how the extensive bargaining proposals they saw many months prior have shrunk to next to nothing and no real idea of why any of this is good for them. Small wonder that working people who have been sidelined are less than enthusiastic when asked to strike or to ratify the lack luster package that has been hammered out under the cone of silence.

The gentlemen's rules are very popular with management because they serve management's purpose. A disempowered membership is unlikely to strike or to engage in a prolonged strike. Disconnected members aren't likely to come out in support of brothers and sisters who are on strike. A public that is oblivious to what is going on under the cone of silence will never know enough to care. This is why management representatives get righteously indignant whenever there is even a suggestion of communication about the progress of bargaining between the union and the members.

Union leaders are going to have to get over their aversion about pissing off management. If unions are to begin to deliver the goods to their members at negotiations, they are going to have to chuck the rulebook and dump the cone of silence. Yes, we really mean it. The days of keeping members in the dark and excluding all but a select few from the bargaining process need to end. There will be no breakthroughs in bargaining until this happens.

The mainstream of labour has come to recognize the importance of Power Source participation, open communication and community involvement in the organizing process. Mainstream unions in the US have, over the past decade, altered their organizing strategies quite dramatically, moving away from professional organizers in favour of a worker-to-worker, grassroots approach. According to a series of studies conducted by Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education at Cornell University, this change in strategy has netted very positive results for American unions. Bronfenbrenner's findings are summarized in a paper called The American Labor Movement and the Resurgence in Union Organizing, Cornell University, 2000.

"...it is in organizing that the US labor movement's efforts at renewal have been most effective. Despite a rapidly deteriorating economic, political and legal climate, for the last several years the AFL-CIO (the US national trade union federation) along with national and local unions have together been engaged in an aggressive effort to significantly improve their organizing capacity and success. This has included shifting staff and financial resources into organizing, mobilizing leaders and members to support organizing campaigns, and developing and implementing more effective organizing strategies and tactics.

Recently released organizing data show that these new union organizing initiatives have finally begun to bear fruit. Throughout the US, unions are running more campaigns, recruiting and training more organizers and winning more elections and voluntary recognitions. They are also winning them in larger units and winning them with new workers in new industries. The great American decline in union organizing may have finally bottomed out."

What exactly is it about these grassroots campaigns that are making them successful? The following excerpt from Bronfenbrenner's paper tells the story:

"What we found is that unions are more likely to win certification campaigns by using a grass roots, rank-and-file intensive strategy building a union and acting like a union from the very beginning of the campaign. The campaigns where the union focused on person to person contact, house calls, and small group meetings to develop leadership and union consciousness and inoculate workers against the employer's anti-union strategy we're associated with significantly higher win rates than traditional campaigns which primarily utilized gate leafleting, mass meetings and glossy mailings to contact unorganized workers.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with leaflets and mailings during organizing campaigns. Rather, what our research shows is that these leaflets and mailings act as a proxy for traditional campaigns where the union's energy is focused on indirect means of communication rather than on personal contact and leadership development necessary to build the union and counteract the employer campaign. Unlike leaflets and mailings, person to person contact through house calls and small group meetings is an essential and effective means for organizers to listen to workers' concerns, allay their fears and mobilize them around the justice and dignity issues that matter enough to them to challenge the employer and win, regardless of the brutality and intensity of the employer campaign.

Unions were also more successful when they encouraged rank and file participation in and responsibility for the organizing campaign. More than any other single variable, having a large, active, rank and file committee representative of all the different interest groups in the bargaining unit was found to be critical to union organizing success, increasing the probability of the union wining the election by as much as20 percent. With employers aggressively campaigning against the union eight hours a day in the workplace, these committees are the most effective vehicles for generating the worker participation and commitment necessary to counteract the fears and misinformation created by the employer campaign. Representative rank and file committees are also essential in order for the union to keep in touch with the issues and concerns of the workers they are attempting to organize. But perhaps most important of all these committees give workers a sense of ownership of the union and the organizing campaign and a sense that they are democratic and inclusive organization. Rank and file leadership and ownership of the union campaign also make it much more difficult for the employer to paint the union as an outside third party.

Escalating pressure tactics in the workplace and the community such as petitions, mass grievances, t-shirt or button days, rallies, public forums or leveraging the employer through suppliers, investors, stockholders or customers, were also found to have a significant positive impact on union organizing success. These actions are important because they build workers solidarity, develop leadership, re-enforce commitment among pro-union workers and help convince undecided voters that they can safely support the union. These tactics also actively demonstrate support for the union among the workers and the broader community and can therefore compel the employer to scale back its anti-union campaign."

If it works during organizing why wouldn't the same principles apply during bargaining? After all, the employers' motives are the same in each case - to retain control and to minimize the power of the workers. Employer tactics during organizing are not dissimilar from those used during bargaining. Threats of closure or relocation of operations are common in both.

How serious is management when it says it's going to hit the road? Another study by Bronfenbrenner found that while about 50% of employers threaten closure during organizing campaigns, only about 3% actually made good on their threat. There is no reason that employers are more likely to make good on threats of closure made during collective bargaining.

Take the tactics from Bronfenbrenner's organizing study and apply them to negotiations and you get the opposite of the secretive, exclusive, disempowering process that is used today.

Think about it: What would an aggressive Power Source intensive bargaining strategy look like?

  • Actively involving rank and file members throughout the process.
  • Encouraging bargaining committee members to speak, ask questions and engage the management committee in discussion.
  • Polling members throughout negotiations to determine their priorities and positions on key issues.
  • Person to person contact to report on the status of bargaining, preparation for job action and community support.
  • Wider representation on bargaining committees of worker members so that a wide range of interests can be represented.
  • Open, frequent communication about the status of bargaining with members and with the community.
  • Engaging the community and applying pressure by communicating with customers, suppliers and community groups.
  • Demanding that the employer open the books and supply proof whenever poverty is being alleged. (The timing for this kind of demand couldn't be better given the growing list of examples of how "figures don't lie but liars figure").

The list of possibilities for involving members and giving them ability to use their full power is probably endless.

Connections between people are far more powerful than the mainstream movement and its leaders believe. If an open, inclusive approach during organizing helps build support, solidarity and commitment, why would a similar strategy not generate similar results during collective bargaining? Would an informed membership not be a more supportive membership in the event that a strike is called? Would wider member participation on bargaining committees not generate greater commitment to the union and reinforce to the employer that the members are a force to be reckoned with? Would publicizing, in advance of and during negotiations, the union's position on the issues not generate interest and, possibly even support from the community? The cone of silence and gentlemen's book of rules accomplish none of these.

During organizing campaigns, employers try to prevent workers from accessing their power (collective action), during bargaining, employers' seek to prevent workers from using their power. The cone of silence keeps workers in the dark and disconnects them from their union and each other.

Knowledge is power. Interaction precedes action. It's time the mainstream woke up to this, what our contributors said about how to bargain.

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