Q & A Table of Contents
Our Local's Leaders Don't
From: David, Yellowknife, Canada
Question: I am a member of a Union that is due to go into negotiations with our company in several months. Over the last 2 contracts we have been on the losing end of the bargaining. I asked our union president and several members of the last negotiations committee what happened the last time when they were unable to achieve any of the goals they set out to obtain. They responded that they didn't believe they had the support of the membership. My question is, does the negotiations team need the support of the membership ( i.e. the power to obtain a strike vote) to properly negotiate with the company. What other insight can you share with me and my fellow members so we can properly negotiate with our company.
Response: If the membership will not vote to authorize a strike if certain minimum demands are not addressed, that weakens the bargaining power of the negotiators. In the UK, when workers are not prepared to take the drastic action of a strike, they often employ what is called 'work to rule'. Under those circumstances they are scrupulous about following the rules governing productivity, breaks for coffee or rest, time spent on each task, etc.
It is crucial for the union negotiators, just like negotiators in virtually all other circumstances, to be especially attentive to the interests of their constituents. If the negotiating team has announced goals in the past and failed to achieve them, their credibility is weakened with both the membership and with management. Union and management share many common goals: unless the workforce is happy and productive, that can eat into corporate profits through reduced productivity or high turnover.
To strengthen the hand of the union's bargainers, it is important for rank and file members to undertake grassroots efforts to publicize their support of the goals announced by the negotiating committee. If it would be difficult or costly for the company to replace the union members -- on a temporary or full-time basis -- then public indications of the memberships' feelings can strengthen the hands of the union negotiators.
It is also important for the negotiators to develop a negotiating strategy that reflects reality. They need to assess how far they can go in 'pushing' management before risking a negative response. At the same time, they need to have a sense of their relative vulnerability to an unfavorable response from union members. If the negotiating committee always includes the same people, that can weaken their ability to convince management that they speak for the membership. It can also reduce their credibility with the members.
You need to examine the rules and regulations of the union -- and provincial and national labor laws -- to develop a clearer sense of what options are open to the membership. If some members are perfectly happy with the current state of affairs, you should question whether the happy workers are doing one sort of job and the unhappy members are doing different kinds of work or are working in different facilities. It may be that a separate unions would make sense if there is that differentiation. It is entirely possible there are existing national unions that would be delighted to wage an election campaign to replace the current union in your workplace (or your section of the workplace).
The people who are not satisfied with the status quo should brainstorm together to figure out what kinds of pressure will be most effective on the negotiating committee and management. How to communicate these ideas to the negotiating committee needs to be considered carefully; sometimes negotiating committee members don't want to rock the boat. So it is important to know what drives the decisions of union and management negotiators. Ask questions, listen hard to the answers, listen to your 'gut reaction' to the answers you get.
US President Ronald Reagan, no friend to unions, used an interesting phrase which might well apply to your situation: "Trust, but verify."
I wish you good luck in this process.