A Look at Open Negotiations (UE's Information for Workers)

A Look at Open Negotiations


Dear UE Steward,

At our workplace management is always trying to undermine the union. Last negotiations we got a pretty good contract, but immediately after we voted to approve the contract, some of the supervisors started talking against the union. They were telling people that we only got what the company wanted to give us and that the union never makes a difference in negotiations. Even though most of our members don’t fall for this, a lot of them have no idea what goes on in negotiations or in grievance meetings. How can we stop the bosses from undermining the union?

Peter Kropotkin
Chief Steward
UE Local 1936

Dear Peter,

This is a good question, and in many workplaces, not just in factories but in the public sector too, we face this problem. Let's look at several ways to deal with it. Some are the old "tried and true" UE methods and then some are not so common methods.

We should always remember that at the heart of our relations with our employers is the fact that it is the workers that get the job done, not management. Just like the song Solidarity Forever says, "without our brains and muscle, not a single wheel would turn." Management settles contracts when they know they need the members' "brains and muscles" to get the job done. This is the basic premise, but to many members who have never sat in on negotiations, the actual details and tactics of negotiating remain a mystery. Here's what we can do to take away the mystery.

Traditional UE Methods

Most UE Locals automatically engage in some of these methods of making the negotiating process more open. Some examples of things Local Unions do to accomplish this are:

  • Regular reporting back to members on what is happening in negotiations. This may involve some of the following:
  • Newsletters
  • Reports on website or through email
  • Before work or lunchtime meetings
  • Phone tree
  • Special stewards meetings so the stewards can inform the members
  • A contract support committee which reports back to the membership

Methods for involving members in the contract fight may include some of these actions:

  • Wearing buttons or stickers
  • Putting up signs or placards up around the workplace
  • Petitions
  • Holding T-shirt Days or Solidarity Days
  • Informational picketing of the worksite
  • Letters to local newspapers
  • Working to rule

Open Negotiations

There is another tradition that some UE workplaces adhere to, and that is having negotiations be an open process. This means that any UE member is welcome and encouraged to sit in and watch the negotiations take place, either at all negotiating sessions or at certain sessions which the Committee designates.

The role of the Negotiating Committee

Unions elect Negotiating Committees so there will be consistency at the bargaining table. If the Union Committee was constantly changing it would be hard to present a unified consistent union position. The size and composition of Negotiating Committees is decided by the membership, but every effort is made to make sure that all portions of the union are represented. Thus the Union Committee often times represents the unity of the workers in the union: men, women, different shifts, young & old, Black and white, English speaking and non-English speaking.

Employers have to accept the Negotiating Committee that the union presents, but other things, like who pays the Negotiating Committee, where the meetings take place, and what time they take place, are negotiable items.

Having members sit in on negotiating sessions allows the union membership to observe first-hand how negotiations work (or sometimes how they don't work) and still maintains the needed consistent role of a Negotiating Committee.

What is the role of members sitting in on negotiations?

The members can only be there as observers. The Negotiating Committee must have the authority to bargain. This is the power vested in the Negotiating Committee by the Union and by law. In order not to give the employer any reason to object to having members present, they should refrain from making comments while negotiations are in progress. (Sometimes this is real hard to do.) Just by being present the members are showing their support for the Union Committee.

Does this hamper the Union Committee from making hard decisions?

If there are going to be open negotiations then there has to be some discussion and basic understanding among the membership as to what goes on in negotiations. By this we mean that people understand that not every proposal the union makes will be kept on the bargaining table until the end. It means the question of what the union's priorities are needs to be clear before negotiations begin.

This may seem to be in contradiction to the problem that Peter raised, that is, how does the Union get members to understand how negotiations work? After sitting through some negotiation sessions, they will have a much better understanding of how negotiations work. This becomes even clearer if the Union negotiating team takes time to talk with the members about their experiences in negotiations before members sit in on them.

There will be some give and take between management and the Union. It does mean that at times the Union Committee will have to spend a little more time during breaks explaining to the members present what their thinking is and what has happened in previous negotiating sessions. It becomes an educational process for them. The Committee will have to make hard decisions in front of the members, but being a Union that traditionally puts itself in the hands of the members, this isn't as hard as it may seem.

Does this hamper the employer from negotiating?

It does hamper most employers from saying outrageous things about the members in order to justify their positions. Most employers don't like open negotiations because their comments and attitude become common knowledge to people. This is the way it should be. Many times the Union Committee becomes used to hearing the employer say ridiculous things to justify a position they are holding. When members are present and hear such things they usually become insulted and tell other members what they heard. Thus the veil is often lifted off of the employer's image.

Because of this, many employers will fight hard against allowing members to sit in on negotiations.

Open negotiations and the negotiating site

Traditionally UE has advocated that negotiations be held during working hours at the workplace. Holding negotiations at the workplace is usually better because it gives the Union Committee easy and immediate access to the membership. If the Committee wants to bring specific people into negotiations to address certain of the union proposals, then being on-site makes this easier to do.

This is still the best approach, even with open negotiations. But if the site for negotiations must be away from the workplace then bringing more members in to watch lessens the drawbacks of being away from the workplace.

If members are going to be present, then they have to come to negotiations during their off shift time. Some UE Locals who engage in open negotiations actually switch the time of negotiations so that members from both first and second shift can attend.

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