Democratic Unions Get the Goods

A new report coauthored by labor analyst Jane McAlevey presents overwhelming evidence that democratic unionism that puts workers at the center of collective bargaining wins strong contracts. Just as important, such unionism also has a transformational effect on workers’ consciousness.

The LA Times bargaining committee, part of the NewsGuild-CWA union, at the negotiating table. (Jay L. Clendenin)

Unions bargain contracts, or at least they try to do so. As numerous studies of US unions have shown, many unions fail to ever reach a first contract. One year after unionizing, fewer than half of bargaining units have done so. Two years after unionizing, 37 percent are still without a contract. Even after three years of having a union, 30 percent lack a contract. Given how hard it is to unionize, it’s startling to realize that employer stalling and antics so frequently defeat workers in the next battle, that of reaching a contract (I’d be remiss not to note that the PRO Act addresses this problem, moving both sides to mediation if a contract isn’t reached after one year).

How a union approaches collective bargaining is thus an important decision — or, as a new report puts it, “a strategic choice.” “Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations,” coauthored by union negotiator and labor writer Jane McAlevey and UC Berkeley Labor Center graduate student researcher Abby Lawlor, uses four case studies of collective bargaining to argue for an approach that brings as many workers into the bargaining process as possible.

The authors don’t just mean a few more workers. They argue for open bargaining, with the goal of “having every worker show up at negotiations at least once, even if only for one hour at shift change.” They recount comical scenes of management showing up to bargain only to be greeted by a room overflowing with workers, with people milling around in hallways and exceeding the fire code. In one of the cases, to get around restrictive bargaining ground rules, the entire workforce is designated as the negotiations team.

This is not how bargaining is usually conducted. More often, the process consists of a small group of middle-tier management plus lawyers sitting across the table from a small committee of workers plus union staff and lawyers. These workers are sometimes directly elected by the union membership, but not always. Ground rules — conditions the employer frequently demands, and to which workers often agree, even though such assent is not mandatory — add to the closed-door nature of the proceedings, with confidentiality a frequent mandate.

But, as the report argues, a more democratic approach is not only possible but better. The bigger the bargaining committee, the more people are available to carry the arduous process, offer ideas and answers to dilemmas posed, and draw from their experiences on the shop floor. The ideal in open bargaining is full transparency — not just the theoretical possibility of all workers participating in negotiations, but the reality of it, which comes from having one-on-one conversations with every worker about contract priorities well before the start of bargaining.

These conversations about priorities are different from written or online member surveys, which workers often forget they filled out anyway by the time negotiations begin. Instead, they are a chance for in-depth, two-way conversations between workers who are less involved in the union and those who are more active. Providing spaces for such discussions, and making them an iterative process, with union leaders repeatedly going back to other workers to discuss priorities, brings workers into the union and sets the stage for unity, should difficulties arise. To give a recent example, this was the approach of GSOC-UAW, the union of graduate workers at New York University; the result was that, when a strike was needed, workers were on board to take action and could hold out to get wins like a $6-an-hour raise.

The cases in McAlevey and Lawlor’s report concern the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the NewsGuild-CWA (the union of Jacobin staff, incidentally), the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), and UNITE HERE Local 26. These unions operate in distinct contexts: NJEA contends with an enemy in the form of then-governor Chris Christie, while the MNA draws on supportive outside activists and a strong local history of unionism. And the workers are diverse: in the case of UNITE HERE, the contract is with hotels, and many of the union leaders are doormen and housekeepers, whereas in the case of the NewsGuild, bargaining committee members include prominent journalists and photographers. But the results are the same: bringing as many workers into the process as possible allows them to overcome barriers the employer insists are insurmountable, winning contracts stronger than many of the members imagined possible.

Workers at Law360, a legal publication represented by the NewsGuild, win 20 percent raises. UNITE HERE hotel workers ultimately go on strike to win demands around funds for retirement and new protections from sexual harassment. The nurses win back a health plan the hospital had eliminated, a 7.4 percent raise, and their priority issue: safe staffing. (MNA members at Saint Vincent, another Massachusetts hospital, are currently several months into a strike over the same issue.)

If strong contracts are one of unionists’ major goals, unions must embrace transparency. The report at times makes this case somewhat dryly, its language less politically infused than one might wish. For instance, in explaining why she first supported having more workers in the negotiation room, McAlevey writes that such an approach “provided efficiencies by enabling real-time fact-checking of management’s claims, and having every type of worker and worker classification present allowed for faster, better decision making.” But what is being advocated on efficiency grounds is that workers democratically control unions, and the report itself shows how even unions’ most quotidian tasks can be transformational if workers have such control.

“I was not born a union leader,” says one nurse who nonetheless became one. People who felt ignored and without a say over their working conditions now call out their bosses. For example, given the silence needed during bargaining sessions, index cards are distributed to workers, on which comments can be written before being passed to their negotiators; when the employer lies, a flood of index cards arrives at the table to point out the inaccuracy. Workers write shop papers, churning out bargaining updates to coworkers late into the night. Caucusing during breaks becomes a social event, with workers getting to know people in other departments and rehearsing statements, building confidence in their own ideas. Organic leaders, meaning people who are trusted among their coworkers, are encouraged to attend bargaining even if they’re anti-union; after seeing the antics of the employer’s side and the transparency at work among their colleagues, they join the union.

“The solidarity forged and thus the power built by workers in these case studies show that when workers are trusted to seriously engage in their own negotiations, they can achieve the commonly unthinkable: they can win against the odds,” concludes the report. Indeed, all the cases took place during Donald Trump’s presidency, reminding us that victories can be won even in a virulently anti-union climate.

As the authors point out, what is won in collective bargaining, be it wages, sick leave, or anti-discrimination policy, can set the floor for subsequent legislation. Union contracts are recipes for cookshops of the near future: union workers’ private welfare state is both a result of failures to win policies such as universal health care and a reminder of the minimum conditions of survival needed by workers. So, too, are unions’ transformative potential a hint at what real democracy writ large will look like: regular people having a say over the conditions of our lives, creating a world better than we were told was possible.