By Chris Townsend

April 7, 2024

 

Several clear trends illustrate the decline of organized labor in the U.S. today, and the deterioration of “collective bargaining” processes – and outcomes – are primary among them. One of the central but diminishing functions of most of the trade unions today remains the occasional renegotiation and update of the terms of the labor contracts covering the union membership. Sometimes elaborate and legalistic bargaining rituals are still periodically performed by union leadership, staff, and employer representatives alike, usually in the larger settings where the most workers are involved. This fanfare has been considerably downsized in recent decades however, as trade union collective bargaining covers fewer and fewer workers, and employers and unions alike realize that the need for such public stage managing is – for the most part – no longer useful.

MEMBERS KNOW LITTLE ABOUT BARGAINING

The lack of actual membership knowledge as to how bargaining really works remains a large and chronic problem. Fewer and fewer union leader careers are furthered by actual negotiation outcomes, further reducing the desire of the leadership to involve the membership. Frequently the “bargaining” today is maneuvered along by union leaders with little publicity at all, reflecting a desire to move the process to a conclusion with as little membership involvement as possible.

Smaller groups of workers are particularly victimized by this trend, which is important to note since the size of most union bargaining groups continues to shrink. Financial costs to the union are held down with this style of negotiations, and workloads for many staff and leaders are reduced. In a broader section of the collective bargaining underway today the membership are sometimes activated and involved to some extent, and these cases would comprise most of the collective bargaining processes that the public might find out about via the media. The railroad, UPS, auto, actors and writers’ negotiations and other contract battles of the past two years would fall into the later category. Corporate media reporting of union negotiations has, however, continuously shrunk in recent decades. And much of what is written is superficial, lacking in background or first-person contributions, and badly biased against the union and workers. All of which further waters down the value of this “news” to any union member seeking real insight.

POOR PREPARATION DELIVERS SUBPAR RESULTS

“Preparation” for collective bargaining is uneven across the unions. Some unions mount member mobilizations campaigns, and for this they are to be commended. But many still do the bare minimum, involving minuscule handfuls of members in the process. A few still exclude the members and see negotiations as an affair to be kept secret from the members as much as possible. Very few unions do any significant educational work with members to prepare them for the coming bargaining conflict.

This education is needed to crystallize in the minds of the workers the real issues, and to encourage them to be willing to engage in workplace struggles to win the agreed-upon goals. In the absence of real and significant educational work, all manner of frequently bogus and minimal pre-contract “surveys” are deployed by union leaders in order to satisfy the members demand for input. This time-tested device ultimately allows for those leaders to control all direction of the negotiations while labeling them as “what the members want.”

BARGAINING “EXPERTS” CONFUSE MEMBERS

Labor union leaders and staff are sometimes schooled in all the latest legalities and techniques of bargaining, further expanding the influence of dubious experts, technicians, and academics.  While members instinctively look forward to bargaining – and the possibilities for beneficial changes – oftentimes the union officialdom see the process as “just another day at the office” with the primary goal being reaching an agreement with the least possible effort on their part.

Upper union leadership has also turned-over bargaining to an increasing layer of lawyers and suspect “bargaining professionals”. These forces have no interest in educating or mobilizing the members in any way during a bargaining fight, as they are on the scene primarily to serve the union leadership who are paying them, and to enrich themselves in the process. These forces likewise engage in a myriad of tactics to justify their presence and high costs, primary among them their insistence on mounting strictly legal and technical approaches. Technical approaches larded-up with incredibly complicated formulas, all manner of indecipherable contract language to make simple points, “crunching numbers” and “costing out” mumbo-jumbo are examples. These tasks often become an irrelevant end-in-itself for union negotiators, and a source of wasteful jousting between union and company “negotiators”.

WHITHER REAL RESEARCH?

Some union research staff – where they still exist – are tasked with providing oftentimes mind-numbing sets of data regarding the employer or the industry, frequently with little actual value. Both union and employer negotiators who seek easy filibusters, delays, and ways to head off an energized membership, put this over-thinking to good use. Members – even those allowed to witness negotiations – are often confused or spellbound by these data and legalistic avalanches. This information dump also allows union negotiators to appear to be informed and prepared, when in fact many ignore completely the vast quantities of information supplied to them.

Comprehensive preparation and research is of course required in all union negotiations, but too many negotiations veer into a no-man’s land of incomprehensible numbers and legally irrelevant underbrush. In recent decades this reduction of negotiations to some sort of a numbers game, or a technical discussion, has served well the business union practitioners who seek final agreements more to the liking of the union brass than the rank-and-file.

TOO FRIENDLY WITH THE BOSS?

Some union leadership and staff develop friendly relationships with employers through their years of contact, and this opens the door to additional destructive employer influence on the union. All manner of appeals are made to “develop relationships” with the employer in the professional training for most union negotiators. Once again, this problem is exacerbated by some mediators, academics, and labor “professionals”, who in the end almost always exert pressure on the membership to settle short of their desired or deserved goals. Cell phones, texting, and modern e-mailing also allow ample opportunities for union negotiators to communicate with the employer in secret, despite assurances that all talks are going on in the open. Added to a generally over-friendly demeanor among the participants at many bargaining tables and the problem of union and management fraternization grows in danger and significance.

NEVER FAST ENOUGH

Similarly plaguing the collective bargaining realm are delays of every kind that sap the members patience and demoralize them in countless ways. It is commonly understood that most times employers are not interested in rapid contract negotiations, and they seek to drag things out as long as possible. Huge financial savings for the employer result from this stalling and slow-motion gimmickry. But in union after union, it is the union itself that causes or tolerates delays, leading to many situations where contract negotiations string on for many months – or a year or more.

Expired contracts are another disaster debilitating the entire bargaining process, as members grow weary, lose confidence in their “leaders”, become susceptible to employer propaganda, and ultimately lose wages and benefits that they might have won far sooner – as contract retroactivity is frequently illusory. Union inability or unwillingness to call the employer to account, forcing a settlement somehow, including a work stoppage if needed, are failings with damaging consequences for the final contract terms and member morale both.

BANKRUPT THINKING SOURCE OF DISASTER

The bulk of the labor union leadership would prefer – as judged by their actions – to avoid collective bargaining, considering it too much work and too bothersome in another ways. Proof of this are the longer and longer union contracts that have become customary, with once unthinkable 4 and 5 year contracts now the norm. Little to no education of the membership is carried out between the increasingly longer and longer intervals between negotiations. Wage increase demands are considered but not studied, all absent a full context which would otherwise justify far larger increases. Health care “benefits” are endlessly discussed, even as they increasingly devour wage increases. The need for a real political solution to this crisis is ignored, prolonging the disaster. Tax-advantaged savings schemes are marketed to the members dishonestly as “retirement” plans, thereby avoiding any campaign to win coverage of the members by real pension plans funded solely by the employers.

The disastrous results of these bankrupt approaches is even greater when it is recognized that indefensible percentage-based wage and salary raises have become the rule in bargaining, even as they systematically expand and compound the degree of inequality between the lowest and highest paid members covered by the contract. Gender and racial inequalities of every sort are still largely left unaddressed in most negotiations, once more a victim of the unwillingness of the union to conduct the kinds of real analysis needed so that genuine trade union goals can be developed for the bargaining.

YOUNG WORKERS ABANDONED AND SOLD OUT

Young workers have been largely ignored or even sacrificed to various concession schemes in recent decades of bargaining. As a result, their dire situation fuels the increasingly destructive turnover rates plaguing countless industries and sectors. Attempts to deal with the problems of young and new workers are given little attention by the union and are too often left up to the employer, with sometimes disastrous results. Recent backlash in some notable contract battles – UPS and auto among them – have helped to address this deplorable situation, but such is the scale of the problem that it will take several contract negotiation cycles – at minimum – to correct the inequities that find their initial roots as far as 30 or 40 years ago.

PRESS RELEASES COVER-UP DETERIORATION

Most unions do publicize the partial final terms of their collective bargaining, even if it is in a very low-level and general fashion to minimally inform the members who are covered by the results. Some unions do better, but the tendency in most is to report to the members based on the “good news only” school of reporting. The bargaining outcomes are routinely played-up on all accounts, providing the members with rosy and sometimes deceptive descriptions of what has been gained, and sometimes what has been defended. Union communications staff are mobilized to “sell” contract settlements to the members with the “good news only” rule exhaustively applied.

Lost in this public relations blitz is any sober assessment of the entire contract package, whether it is a success or not in the context of its employer, industry or sector, or in the context of the national economic and political environment. Many are the members who discover after the fact that what was actually negotiated by the union is not what they were led to believe was in the final deal. Contract ratification processes have increasingly become rush-job meetings where the terms of the contract are distributed, discussed, explained, and minimally questioned all in one, or at best several brief meetings. These meetings are sometimes organized deliberately to reduce member attendance, all in the rush by the union “leaders” to “get a deal.” Any member expressing dissatisfaction or asking too many questions will find themselves blamed by the officialdom for “not paying attention”, or worse.

AFL-CIO NO HELP ON BARGAINING

In a March 25, 2024, e-mail update sent presumably to select members of the AFL-CIO unions, the headline blared that, “Union members won sky-high pay hikes in 2023”. The staff writer did their best to extoll the claim of sudden and dramatic improvement in the collective bargaining outcomes of the labor movement in 2023. Union members saw pay raises averaging 6.6% percent in the first year of their new contracts – at least according to Bloomberg Law, an unverifiable corporate source primarily marketed to employers. ANALYSIS: Unions Won Sky-High Pay Hikes in 2023 Negotiations (bloomberglaw.com)  It exceeds the boundaries of the imagination to in any way describe a 6.6% percent raise as “sky high”, but such is the delusionary state of AFL-CIO thinking that such a claim is possible.

It is further blared that this “feat” is the greatest percentage wage increase by labor in the past 36 years. Conveniently absent from this release is the fact that for the past 45 years U.S. union members were victims of systematic and dramatic actual reductions in their real wages and living standards, driven by concessionary contracts, rampant inflation in prices, skyrocketing health care costs, and multiple anti-worker government policies pushed by both major parties. Also ignored by the AFL-CIO publicists is the need for workers today to set aside presumably enormous sums of money from their pay envelopes in the absurdly vain attempt to fund their own retirement.

The AFL-CIO release, while thankfully brief, is shameless in its obvious intent and timing to somehow credit the Biden Administration for this small and likely momentary recapture of a small slice of wealth from employers. (The full e-mail sent to me is apparently not available on-line, but some of its content is repeated in a glossy web post promoting the new and expensive AFL-CIO slogan “It’s Better in a Union”. It’s Better in a Union | AFL-CIO (aflcio.org) )  This cheap attempt by the labor federation to engage in such humiliated shilling for the Biden regime is not helpful. The federation might instead lead a program to better prepare the unions for bargaining, to better educate and mobilize their membership for this process, to promote a return to shorter contracts so as to win more opportunities for improvements, and the like.

WHAT ROLES FOR THE LEFT?

The union negotiations subject is expansive, and while it is perhaps not remarkable to criticize some of the most egregious shortcomings of labor in this regard the answer must somehow to be found as to “How can labor do better?” A starting point would be for labor writers and editors to first seriously study the actual workings of union negotiations. Left journalism and reporting on union contract battles seem to fall into the “good news only” or “the members were sold out again” categories. Neither is helpful. No real help is offered to the leftists and militants scattered in the unions trying to develop a deeper understanding of the organizational, technical, or political aspects of negotiations by these low-calorie and predictable offerings.

With many of the writers, editors, and activists following labor events also being younger or newer – with few opportunities so far to gain actual bargaining experience – it is urgently needed for them to seek out and discuss bargaining and bargaining experiences with those who have, or are, actually doing this difficult work. Likewise unhelpful is the constant reliance by these forces on input from the same alleged “experts” and academics who, while well-intended, have helped to deliver us to this disastrous point. Real reporting research must take the place of mere public relations pieces, with space being made to interview and connect with members and activists alike. Publication editors must also step up and accept that much of what their outlets have produced is thin, lacking in useful content, and therefore not very helpful to the goal leading an urgently needed improvement of the bargaining situation. Improvement is needed, and possible – with effort.

NEED TO CHALLENGE THE UNION ESTABLISHMENT

Leftists and union militants must run for local offices which enable them to play a role in negotiations, volunteer for any available posts with similar influence, and in the end be prepared to squeeze – or even fight – their way into the negotiation process. If this later course should become needed, it is a certainty that the rank-and-file membership will applaud it and support it. In the absence of real union-led preparation and mobilizations for bargaining these same forces should move into that void and fill it. Delay or over-thinking is the death of this opportunity. Motivation and sincerity in seeking real improvements in this often-degraded situation are the only required offsets needed for any lacking in technical knowledge or experience.

A left demand that the entire bargaining process, from start to finish, be opened to observation and input from the members is required. This alone reduces much union and employer wheeling-and-dealing which is too often the source of ultimate member dissatisfaction with the process and outcome. Open bargaining and its variations are a veritable college class for the membership in how the real relationship plays out between union and employer. Detailed union e-mail updates and contract bulletins must also be produced for the membership, with or without the consent of the union leadership. Much akin to the advances in member knowledge and motivation that are accomplished by exposing them to new organizing situations or strike actions, exposure and involvement in bargaining moves members forward better and faster than all contrived contract time “trainings” imaginable.

NEW ORGANIZING NEEDED TO IMPROVE BARGAINING

Underlying the entire bargaining battlefield is the fact that while significant, the trade unions today are too small, too scattered, too poorly led, and too politically backward to continue to defend previous bargaining gains, let alone begin to make up very much lost ground at the bargaining tables. Only with the addition of substantial new recruits to the unions in existing sectors as well as sectors so far untouched by unionism will our movement stand some realistic chance of progress. Legendary U.S. labor leader, organizer, and strike strategist William Z. Foster cautioned over his entire 60-year career of the need for organized labor to organize the unorganized in order to improve the ability of the unions to make progress at the bargaining table – as well in the political sphere. See: American Trade Unionism – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com)

SOME RESOURCES

The Labor Notes publication is a reliable source for understandable and productive collective bargaining experience and expertise. See: | Labor Notes  Also Labor’s Bookstore at Labor’s Bookstore: Your place for books about labor, workers & unions (laborsbookstore.com)  Some unions offer bargaining preparation information on their web sites, with the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) one example. Information for Workers | UE (ueunion.org) Seek out especially unions and web sites that emphasize real-life scenarios, and who put a strong emphasis on the need to educate and mobilize the membership as the primary source of union bargaining power. Ignore the legalistic, the over-complicated, and those guidelines produced by folks who have opinions galore – but few or no real-life experiences at union negotiations.

NO IMPROVEMENTS WITHOUT STRUGGLE

In the end, the caliber, quality, and results of labor’s collective bargaining will only improve when it is forced to improve. The existing leadership in most cases is satisfied with the current thin results, and with few serious forces pushing on them to pick up the pace and show better results no changes should be expected. It is the role of the left wing to exert that needed influence.

 

-Chris Townsend is a 45-year union member and leader. He was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW. He may be reached at: cwtownsend52@gmail.com