• authored by remote viewer
  • published Sat, Jul 13, 2002

How to bargain

How to bargain

Earlier this week, a strike by 25,000 municipal workers in Toronto - reputedly the largest municipal strike in Canadian history - was brought to an end through a cooperative effort on the part of government, labour and municipal officials. A roadblock to quick passage of back to work legislation was removed when Ontario's neo-con Premier, Ernie Eves picked up the phone and called an official of the Ontario Federation of Labour about suitable candidates for the rent-a-judge who will decide what will be in the civic workers collective agreements. How did we get so much cooperation for back to work legislation in a strike where the union held so many cards? It's our labour relations system hard at work for us, keeping things nice and orderly and making sure workers don't get to realize - never mind exercise - their full power.

2003 will be a big year for collective bargaining in the service industry with a large number of collective agreements coming due for renewal. UFCW Local 1518's collective agreements with Safeway and Save-On stores in BC are among those.

Like the civic workers in Toronto, service industry workers have considerable bargaining power (they just don't know it) and unlike the civic workers, they are not going to be legislated back to work if they strike. The prospects for good agreements should be high as long as union leaders and union members understand what can and usually does get in the way. It's not just management taking a hard line or union members not wanting to take a stand that can prevent the union from bargaining a really good contract. There is something rooted in the bargaining process - the way that bargaining is carried out - that is inherently disempowering for workers. This isn't generally discussed in polite company.

There are few legal requirements that govern collective bargaining. The law says that you must bargain, in good faith, during certain proscribed periods of time but it doesn't set out any requirements about how you are to bargain. How bargaining is conducted is governed by protocols and widely held beliefs among labour relations practitioners about what is good at negotiations. It is generally accepted that discussions be confined to a handful of representatives of both sides, that little if any information be released about the progress of bargaining to union members and to the public, that non-monetary issues be discussed and resolved before monetary issues are dealt with, that most demands - even important ones - must at some point be dropped or traded away in order to get to a deal. The bargaining process is lengthy, tedious and mind-numbing. All of this works in favour of management. It allows management a degree of control of the process that deprives the union of its single most important source of power - the members and their active involvement.

Labour relations practitioners - on both sides of the fence - treat bargaining and its conventions as a sort of sacred ritual. While the positions that employers take during negotiations can be subject to criticism, the process itself is rarely ever the subject of any discussion.

Fortunately, we are not 'polite company'. As we head into 2003 it's time we take a look at the conventional wisdom around how bargaining is carried out and at alternatives that may allow unions to engage the full power of their members - the Power Source.

Those of you insiders who are familiar with the process: Now is the time to talk to working people and their unions about what works at bargaining and what doesn't. What are the myths? What are the opportunities? How can unions more actively involve members in the process?

  • posted by lefkenny
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 8:38am

We might be oceans apart, but seem to be thinging along the same lines at appx. the same time. You express things so well.


  • posted by siggy
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 9:16am


Fortunately, we are not 'polite company'. As we head into 2003 it's time we take a look at the conventional wisdom around how bargaining is carried out and at alternatives

I have never been to negotiations of the machine kind. I have been privy to some of the goings on and at the time I thought it was hilarious. I thought the execs must be a bunch of d'noobs. Here's how it goes for 1518.

On one side of the table sits the big cahuna surrounded by his negot. team (this is what they are allowed to call themselves). On the other side, of course, is the company team.

The union team is not allowed to speak at the table. They must be silent, only the big cahuna gets to speak.

Now it's not hard to figure there must be some rules of order, but a silent team? Come-on let's move into the 20th century.

edit = Oh yeah forgot. The team are to remain emotionless. No grimacing, no snearing, no smirking, no shaking ones head. No nothing. Sit down and shut-up.

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 10:18am

You've just landed on one of the cardinal of "rules" of the game: No talking, no emotion, no participation. This is supposed to help keep things nice and orderly and ensure that the other side clearly understands what the union is proposing.

In reality, it's just a way of controlling the process. It's easier for the management kahuna to sit there and say "no" to the union kahuna when all he or she has been told is the union's proposal and maybe a few words as to what is behind the demand. It's a lot more difficult to say "no" when there is a lot of debate and discussion and participation - not to mention a lot of information flowing back and forth.

Management really hates it when there is a lot of participation on the part of the union committee. It means we have to think harder, speak more intelligently and actually come up with reasons for the positions they're taking. The more questions that are being asked, the more likely that the managers will be asked for something that they don't want to divulge. They'll have to decide whether to refuse to answer, give a vague answer, lie through their teeth or 'fess up.

Participation from and among members of both committees can be very productive however, based on what I have seen in situations where this takes place at bargaining.

  • posted by siggy
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 10:34am


You've just landed on one of the cardinal of "rules" of the game:

My apologies to Brook, I thought he made this *sit down and shut-up* crap up himself, but I guess there are a whole bunch of despots doing it.

  • posted by BillPearson
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 11:04am

" When i've dug it deep enough, just hit me on the head with the shovel an cover me before i come to. " Pearson 7/13/02

I must be getting old, i love telling stories. In 1970something, i was working in the stores and got elected to the negotiating committee. Even back then, i had big mouth, and didn't hesitate to jump into the fray at the bargaining table. There was an international vp with us and when we took a break, he ate my ass with a vengence. For me, it was a teachable moment.

A handful of years later i was hired as a union rep. Within a matter of years, i began negotiating contracts. I had a standard rule for neg. i told every committee: you have the ability to speak at the table. I want you to think before you speak, and if you don't, i may or may not help you get your foot out of your mouth.

In !998, at our groc and meat neg, we had a large boisterous committee.Same rules applied. The employer was giving us their industry is in the shitter speach. After an hour+ my committee was getting restless or bored.The dribble began about pay rates in Texas or some such nonsense and one of the more free thinkers stopped the attorney mid sentence and asked what the tax rates were in Texas. The employer group got up in masse and left for the day. The next meeting, we were all gathered and i was wearing the comparable to army fatigues. I sat there angry and sullen, just waiting for the right moment. The state mediator made some wise ass comment about my attitude, and i lost it. I have a bit of a temper, and i exploded on them (mgmt) for insulting my committee and slowing down the process. After i was finiished, i got up and stormed out of the room. We took our entire group and left neg. While it was testy for a bit, we never had another outburst, and my committee talked freely at the table the rest of the time.

I couldn't resist this post, cause it's one of my pet peeves during bargaining. I've negotiated over a hundred contracts in my years and i've never had a committees comments jeopardize the talks. We spend a fortune bringing the committee to the table. To neuter them never made any sense to me. Maybe there was a time when we controlled the process, but was a long time ago. I find the disruptions to be unsettling to the employers and i love to use it to throw them off their game. Unfortunately, most unions still use the single voice theory. IMHO, the only reason to cling to it is if you are still going to the bargaining table and are kicking the employers ass.

  • posted by weiser
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 11:26am

Committee members shouldn't be muzzled, but they should be educated on the wisdom of never saying they are satisfied until the chief bargainer is ready to say "sufficient."

Hearing from committee members is good too because the employer gets a feel that it ain't just the mouth who's making up what comes out of his or her cake hole.

As for chief spokespersons, inexperience breeds tyrany. If you fear what will come out of your committee member's mouth, you haven't done your prep work.

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 11:42am

An added benefit of allowing members to speak at the table is that it blows away the myths managers like to believe about working people: That workers are dumb and easily led (they will buy anything their union leaders ask them to buy) and that workers really don't care much about what they get in the new contract (it's really the union leaders' agenda). It's unsettling for managers to realize that these people whom they like to hold in low esteem, are intelligent, articulate and understand the business better than management does.

Another good myth is that nobody should be communicating about negotiations outside of the bargaining room. Management communicates widely inside the company about how bargaining is going, what's on the table and so on but there seems to be a rule that the union is not supposed to do the same with the membership. I think this just makes the members feel more disconnected from the union and less likelly to be willing to strike if the day comes when that's necessary.

What do you all think about this? Should unions communicate more and in more detail with members while bargaining is going on?

  • posted by siggy
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 11:56am

First question: Does the management team act as neanderthal as the machine team? Do they sit silent?


Should unions communicate more and in more detail with members while bargaining is going on?

BP just went thru this, had his negotiating progress up every night. How much did that hurt?

  • posted by BillPearson
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 12:12pm


BP just went thru this, had his negotiating progress up every night. How much did that hurt?

The membership loved it. It kept them engaged and part of the process. It made them activists even without much activity. It intimidated the hell out of the employer. Every time they gave me a bad proposal, i would look them in the eye and ask if they really wanted to do this. I would always add, you know this will be posted be midnite and in your stores tommorow. Our communications committee was awesome. They spread the word. We made believers out of everyone because we told them what we were going to do, and then we did it.

It meant three of us worked killer numbers of hours, but everyone knows we are overpaid anyway.

  • posted by licatsplit
  • Sat, Jul 13, 2002 12:34pm


It kept them engaged and part of the process. It made them activists even without much activity.

Now this is what is needed! It is a tremendous way to bring the participation of the members up to a higher level and the method couldn't be simpler. Extraordinary! How long will it take for the eyes to be opened? Just this step of faith on the officers part could reap so many benefits and bring the members into the equation. My God! Come' on leaders, let's get with the program!!

  • posted by remote viewer
  • Sun, Jul 14, 2002 8:42am

Does anybody demand to see financial information if the company is crying poor (or not rich enough)? I don't know why anyone would just take the company's word for it but most union negotiators do from what I've been able to tell.

  • posted by Scott Mcpherson
  • Sun, Jul 14, 2002 10:33am

Above board bargaining. When your following this coarse what's being said outside the negotiations isn't harmful at all. In fact for a union it's a good barometer for judging if your still on track with the wishes of the membership.

Gag orders are for hiding things you don't want the general public to know about. Now I can understand an employer not wanting proprietary issues about their business being made public, and it's in the unions best interest not to disclose such information, even to the membership. But therin lies the limit of what I feel should stay at the bargaining table.

What B.P. did was force the employers to think about what they were throwing out there because within a day most of their employees would know about it. I think that's true leadership and should be comended. And what's wrong with a committee member "going off" on either side? are we saying we can't start over on the particular topic? it's a tense situation for everybody and things will heat up, it's not personal.

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