Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Dirty Truth Behind Closed Contract Negotiations

If you ask your average rank-and-file UFCW or Teamsters member when they last attended a contract bargaining session, they'll likely tell you that they've never been to one.  What's the reason for this?  One of the unfortunate truths of the labor movement is that many unions do not permit their own members to attend the negotiation sessions of their own contract.

I asked several Kroger members for an update during their contract campaign last year.  The answer was identical from everyone I talked to.   They could attend a regional meeting to receive an update, but they were never informed of negotiating session locations, or invited to attend.  When I asked several Teamsters from the facility in which I work, they responded that only the Shop Steward was permitted to attend negotiations.

So why is this a big deal?

For starters, and probably most importantly, it's your contract.  I don't know about you, but there is no way in hell that I'm going to let someone negotiate the terms of my employment without me being present so I can witness and approve of what they agree to.  I have always believed that someone who has the opportunity to attend negotiations, and refuses to do so has no right to complain about the shortcomings of their collective bargaining agreement.

If your union doesn't encourage you to attend negotiations, or tries to discourage you from attending, this should be a major red flag.  Ask yourself this question - Why don't they want me to attend?

So why don't unions want their members at negotiations? 

There are two very big secrets that many unions do not want their members to know that contribute to this strategy:

1. Having open negotiations has the potential to show the weakness of the bargaining unit if nobody shows up.  Of course, if a union is doing its job, then it will have the bargaining unit mobilized for negotiations.  Most unions do not spend enough time or resources on this sort of action.  Therefore, it is in their interest to have closed negotiations to keep the employer in the dark.

2. Having closed negotiations allows the union to make whatever deals it wants to make without the members knowledge.  I call this the SEIU strategy.  SEIU has become famous for its backroom deals with employers.  While I mentioned earlier that my local had open negotiations, I was trained to figure out what the members would swallow without going on strike, then to make a deal with management without the members knowing to settle the contract.  Sadly, many unions follow this playbook and negotiate weak contracts instead of organizing their bargaining units into a militant force that can fight concessions.

The bottom line is: It's your contract, your job - Fight for it!

In Solidarity,


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Is It Time For a Working Class Continental Congress?

In 1905, Big Bill Haywood opened the first convention of the Industrial Workers of the World(IWW) by saying, "This is the Continental Congress of the working class."  Nearly one-hundred and seven years later, is it time for the working class to come together again for a 2nd Continental Congress?  After all, in spite of what anti-labor propagandists would have us believe, many of the issues faced by the IWW in 1905 still exist.

I asked several members of the labor community if they thought that such an endeavor could be successful in galvanizing the working class beyond big labor.  Bill Fletcher, author of Solidarity Divided said, "I think that regional gatherings that built towards something national would be interesting particularly if broad."  Countering that point of view was Chris Townsend, National Political Director for the United Electrical Workers of America(UE), who stated when I posed the question of whether this could be an effective approach, "Yes, but not yet. The level of union activity at the rank and file level may be an an all-time low point. The "left" plays little role in addressing this, choosing instead to rally whatever contacts they have for issues and struggles other than basic union organization and struggle. We have a labor leadership which has relegated organizing the unorganized to marginal status at best, with many having given up on it altogether."

As for myself, I believe that the time has come for the working class - both organized and unorganized - to begin meeting in a sort of workers' councils at the local level.  Once these have been established, then the planning of a 2nd Continental Congress of the Working Class could commence.  What must be guarded against is the tendency that big labor has had in the past to usurp control over any movement of this type.  Bill Preston, President of AFGE Local 17 in Washington, DC, also mentioned that big labor might try to take over control of  the movement, " I am for experimenting with any tactical form that advances the cause of expropriating the capitalists and making the working class the ruling class...I think the labor fakers will try to hog the limelight as you say, once they see their unions' members active."

As we have witnessed over the last 18 months or so with the Tea Party and Occupy Movements, sometimes it is better to not have one organization or individual driving a movement.  If the workers in the United States have had enough, now just might be the right time for action.

In Solidarity,