Association for Union Democracy

UDR #220 Now Available!

Editor’s note: Our friends sometimes ask us, how can you be sure that union democracy doesn’t weaken unions in contract bargaining? Answer: use your eyes! Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor have just written a terrific study of how democratic unions get good contracts. We present just the high points here. Read the full report. We guarantee you will find something that your union should do. The full report also discusses Unite HERE Local 26, representing hotel workers in Boston, New Jersey teachers, Los Angeles Times workers, and Massachusetts nurses. Jane starts the story when she began handling contract negotiations for 1199 in Nevada in 2004.]


Despite being hotly debated for decades if not centuries, the concept of ‘union democracy’ can be hard to define. As a union member, organizer and negotiator, the central test I’ve used for whether a union is democratic is are the workers crucial to decision making on the most important decisions in our unions? In my life experience, the central decision that most unionized workers care about deeply is what is in our contract. As such, having been developed and trained as a negotiator by some of the best mentors—the older set of trade unionists who built the once mighty District 1199, I’ve long accepted that practicing democracy was more important than debating it—and to practice fully open, transparent negotiations, where every single worker covered by the agreement is not only welcome, but strongly encouraged to actively participate in every stage of the bargaining process is a key, if not the key, expression of democratic unionism. Turns out, we win way more, too.

-Jane McAlevey, 6/25/21

Turning The Tables: An Excerpt

Excerpted (with permission of the authors and publisher) from Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations, UC Berkeley Labor Center, May 2021. The full report is free at
Because my early observations and experiences of union negotiations were with what is now called SEIU 1199NE—a division of the national union known colloquially as 1199 in the old days—in Connecticut, I had already learned that having more workers in the room was a good idea. It provided efficiencies by enabling real-time fact-checking of management’s claims, and having every type of worker and worker classification present allowed for faster, better decision making. My own practice evolved from opening the negotiation room itself to setting a goal of having every worker show up at negotiations at least once, even if only for one hour at shift change.

In Nevada, the method was born out of a desperation to rebuild workers’ faith in themselves and their organization. The lack of trust in the very typical negotiations process– in which a handful of workers in paid status plus either a lawyer or another staffer negotiates an entire agreement behind closed doors and simply announce a ratification ballot in which workers vote down or up the settlement reached in secrecy—was palpable and deserved. To quickly reverse course, we opened the negotiations to every worker, and they didn’t have to be a member of the union. Expanding the process to nonmembers who were covered by the agreements was especially controversial in the beginning of this completely transparent, high-participation effort. Beyond opening the room up, we targeted the most trusted informal leaders among the workers, many of whom were not union members, and encouraged them to come to see for themselves how their coworkers were building a new union through the negotiations process. One after another, as workers left the negotiations room, they signed up to become union members.

When workers have low trust in their own organization and are invited to take part in the very process at the heart of every union—contract negotiations—they often shift to having immense trust. This can happen in the course of one negotiation session, if not just one hour in a session, when the union goes out of its way to ensure all workers understand the process and dynamics. This is especially true when previously skeptical workers see their employer’s often disrespectful behavior in negotiations.

In 2016, more than a decade after my Nevada union work, I was hired as a consultant by the state-based independent nurses’ union in Pennsylvania to help coordinate citywide negotiations in Philadelphia and lead negotiations with the employer who had hired a nefarious union-busting firm, IRI Consultants. (The company is currently working with Google management to help dissuade its workers from seeing themselves as workers, or unionizing.) We’d have to bring every lever of power to the contract talks, assuming we could even get to the negotiations. The employer, Albert Einstein Medical Center, had taken the advice that IRI’s consultants had given it, which was to file official objections to the NLRB elections where the Einstein workers voted yes to unionizing. This meant that although the workers had voted for the union, the NLRB had not yet legally certified the election. With a powerful union-busting firm still driving a divide-and-conquer, scorched-earth approach inside the hospital and among the workforce, which it alternated regularly with running an aggressive message of futility (“nothing will change just because you voted to unionize”), relying on a typical union approach to negotiations was the opposite of what workers needed to realize their vision of having a meaningful voice at work. Using Einstein as a prime example, I will next outline the basic process and elements of transparent, big, and open negotiations.

The Contract Survey as an Organizing/Reorganizing Tool (and Structure Test)

Many unions, if asked, will say they have conducted a survey of members in preparations for negotiations. For most unions, this means they’ve either surveyed union members through their internal steward structure, or, more likely, have e-mailed an anonymous survey to the members of the union. If asked how many workers or what percent answered the survey, many unions won’t know and won’t seem to care. By contrast, in a contract process truly aimed at reaching supermajority worker participation, the contract survey itself represents the first of what will likely be many “structure tests” in the contract campaign. A structure test is a mini campaign that helps workers identify where its internal structure is strong, middling, weak, or nonexistent.

To make a contract survey function as a structure test, worker leaders in each site or facility unit are responsible for holding one-on-one conversations, or small group meetings, with workers in their area in which they work. Each worker activist is responsible for carefully tracking who filled in the contract survey as they methodically meet their coworkers so that they know whether, or when, they have achieved majority or supermajority participation—or whatever number that achieves a specific, set participation goal, and thus how many workers are actively engaging in the contract survey. Setting the intention of getting to majority or a supermajority, or 90 percent, or some specific goal, is a key step, up front.

Though not a hard-and-fast rule, ideally the survey will not be anonymous, because the contract-survey process is an organizing or reorganizing tool that explicitly encourages relationship building among the workers. Structure tests encourage solidarity building—not just structure building—by how they are conducted. They build in permanent two-way conversations between the workers and what becomes the central negotiations team. Conducted this way, worker activists and worker leaders emerge from this structure test—the initial contract survey—better understanding which workers lead which other workers, and which workers rely on and trust which workers. This process is called leadership identification. Relationship building is crucial to every aspect of garnering maximum worker capacity to win a great contract. By contrast, a confidential, online survey denies workers this vital aspect of relationship building on perhaps the most important topic to workers: what they want and need in their next contract.

Finally, contract negotiations are a superb time to recruit the hard-to-recruit workers and those who are newly hired since the last negotiations. The process of persuasion, a key to recruitment, can best—if not only—be executed by first listening to and hearing what the worker with whom you are engaged wants to change about their workplace. Careful listening can happen only if the survey is a conversation tool, a document that one worker fills in while listening to the issues that matter most to the coworker. The recruitment then happens once the worker activist knows the coworker’s top issues, and can walk them through the steps of how their most crucial concerns will be raised in the contract negotiations process, connecting the building of a strong union with robust membership participation to the outcomes that can be achieved in the contract campaign.

Electing a Big, Representative Negotiations Team

After the conversations in the contract-survey process, the next step is holding rotating site-based or unit or facility-based elections once a majority of workers in a given area have reached the goal of a majority of workers having completed contract surveys. At Einstein, we conducted rolling elections. Once a unit hit a majority of coworkers’ having participated in the contract survey process, it could nominate members to the negotiations team. If they were contested (many were), a secret ballot election was conducted by the site or unit to elect their negotiations team members.

The rolling negotiations team elections at Einstein—with units announcing the results on simple photo posters with a statement that the worker was ready to go to the contract talks and bring the issues of their work area to the employer—created a friendly but competitive environment. In areas or units where worker activists were struggling to reach majority participation in the survey process, being able to show their coworkers the posters from other units—demonstrating through visuals that others were participating—created a healthy motivation for those units to catch up. They realized that without participation, their unit and their specific issues would fail to have representatives on the negotiations committee.

Power is what wins in union negotiations, and in a democracy, participation equates to power.

The size of the official negotiations team depends in part on the size of the workforce. For Einstein, with 1,000 workers in the bargaining unit, workers elected a 60-person committee. All workers were allowed to attend planning sessions and negotiations; the official committee, however, was expected to be at negotiations and fully engaged in the process. In some big departments, workers elected alternate negotiators in case someone couldn’t get off their work shift. (In a workplace with notorious short staffing, having alternates to officially negotiate was important.)

At UNITE HERE Local 26, the union assembled a negotiations committee that included not only Marriott workers—who would be directly covered by the contract being negotiated—but workers from other unionized Boston hotels because the union planned to extend the agreement to other employers. Workers from every union hotel could and did attend Marriott bargaining.

Creating Article Committees for Each Article in the Contract

An organizing approach to contract talks means tirelessly looking for ways to get an increasing number of workers involved in the contract process. For the Einstein campaign, we created “article committees,” an even bigger team of workers who get involved based on their particular interest in a particular aspect of the contract. The way I’ve practiced this since the earlier part of this century is by asking each official negotiating committee member, or an elected alternate, to be the chair of at least one article in the contract. Participation on an article committee provides yet another mechanism for workers to connect the outcome of their issues to their active involvement in the contract campaign.

It also makes for an almost dizzying level of efficiency in the actual negotiations process. When the employer provides counter proposals all at once, workers on the article committees can quickly meet and review the changes the management team is proposing. I’ve watched a dozen article committees work simultaneously to read through the union’s proposal, compare it with the employer’s counter proposal, and then have the article-committee members themselves stand up in the larger room, one article committee at a time, to present their committee’s recommendation to the full negotiations team about what to accept, reject, or counter.

Contract Action Teams

Contract action teams—CAT teams—and similar site-based structure teams that have different names but the same purpose function to ensure two-way dialogue between each work area, worksite, and worker classification and a negotiations committee. Historically, CAT teams have been seen as an important part of bottom-up contract campaigns. Interestingly, in a big and open negotiations process, where a large team of negotiators and alternates are elected, there’s less need for a formal CAT team than in unions with small committees and a more closed process. Negotiations that are big and open create structures that engage every unit and type of worker in direct and indirect ways. CAT teams generally meet with small bargaining teams or negotiators after negotiations sessions. But when the negotiators or their alternates provide that representation, and when all workers are being encouraged to attend negotiations to listen, watch, and participate when planned, the work of the CAT team is functionally being handled.

The Information Request

Information requests are a formal, legal part of the negotiations process. Workers who have formed a union have the right to essentially all information their employer has on just about any topic or issue area that is governed by conditions of work. Unionized workers can ask for spreadsheets that show what every worker in the bargaining unit—the workers covered by the collective agreement—is paid, their date of hire, the experience they brought to the job, what benefits or bonuses they are being paid, how many hours of overtime they are asked to work, how many of their work shifts are being cancelled, and much more. The employer is required to provide this information as part of the contract negotiations process.

If the employer fails to provide this information, which is crucial to constructing the demands the workers will put forward, it is considered an unfair labor practice (ULP) under the National Labor Relations Act. While no negotiations committee would release or publish this sensitive data, they can quickly develop a database that allows each worker to see, for example, whether they are being paid under, over, or the same as workers with the same experience and years on the job. This is a key tool used to confront gender-, age-, race-, and ethnicity-based discrimination, as workers at the L.A. Times were able to do by using information request data to call out five-figure pay disparities. Wage and benefits transparency is fundamental to the negotiations process. Discussing and sharing the information requests sent to the employer with all workers is one good way to have them understand a right they have relative to not-yet-unionized workers.

The Three Rules for the Room When Management Is Present

Crucial to a big, and especially a big and open, negotiations process is having an upfront agreement as to how everyone on the union side will conduct themselves when the management team is in the room and negotiations are taking place. Over the years, each negotiations team I’ve had the pleasure of working with has debated, and finally voted to adopt, three simple governing rules for all union participants during active negotiations: (1) workers maintain poker face at all times, (2) no one speaks except the designated negotiator, unless it is planned, and (3) workers send notes to the negotiator anytime they want to talk, let the negotiator know something, or want to take a break and ask the management team to leave the room (known as a caucus in union negotiations).

Planning Where to Hold Negotiations

Labor law stipulates both parties must agree on where and when negotiations take place. If the employer has a space big enough to accommodate your committee’s size and the negotiations involve a single facility or single employer, then conducting the negotiations on site works well and provides several advantages. Many workers visit the negotiations room on work breaks, be it having lunch in the negotiations room (adhering to the three rules) or using a 15-minute break when it is important for a particular worker to join the session—for example, if the employer had earlier in the session brought up or misrepresented an issue that the on-break worker knows about and can address. Most employers facing big and open negotiations will try to make negotiations as inconvenient as possible for the workers. Obviously, if workers want many coworkers to participate, then getting the negotiations as close to the facility, or as central or convenient as possible for multisite negotiations, is key.

In the Einstein negotiations, like most negotiations I had been involved in, we used community institutions close to the facility, or central to most workers, depending on the scenario. Ideally, as part of the contract campaign, workers have already charted one another’s connections to their own community institutions. This is a key mechanism, enabling workers to bring their own community’s concerns and issues into the process. It’s also a terrific way to find free or very affordable locations for bargaining. For example, at Einstein we held negotiations in a nearby church that was powerful in the community and city politics. We decided to hold our negotiations there once we realized the church represented power and workers in the hospital were already members of the church. The workers made the connection to the church leaders, opening a pathway not just to a good site for negotiations but also to drawing on and reinforcing an organic relationship between the workers and the pastors and congregation.

Training, Role Playing, and The Opening Session

Whether you choose traditional small committees or big ones—but especially if you choose big and open negotiations—conducting ongoing trainings in negotiations basics, starting with the three rules, is essential. It is important to role play. For example, in a mock negotiations session we had some people who acted as the management team behave in utterly charming and utterly rude ways, trying to get the committee to break any of the three rules. Certainly, when workers are preparing to speak in negotiations, having them role play in front of their coworkers and practice what they plan to say helps get the nervous jitters out of the way, at least in part.

In big and open negotiations, it’s a great practice to have the entire negotiations team and even key worker leaders who are not formally on the committee make an opening presentation to the management team on all the subjects they will address in negotiations. This presentation can include areas in which the workers believe there is a common interest with management. In the Einstein campaign, that included the workers’ being able to create outstanding patient-care outcomes. The presentation can include the results of the majority contract survey, with data and statistics about the key issues that workers will bring to the negotiations themselves. Having the committee plan this presentation by having a slide for each topic or issue, and having workers plan who will do the presenting and in what order, can get negotiations off to a roaring start. It will send a strong signal to management that workers are in control of the negotiations.

Making it Easy for Workers to Stay Informed When They Do Show Up

In order for workers to get engaged in negotiations, they need to know the context of what’s happening in the room when they show up. If they are simply sitting as unknowing observers, they can get bored quickly. One easy tool to use is an article checklist. It tracks which negotiating side made what proposal and whether the other side presented a counterproposal, with a simple summation of the status of each article, created for each negotiations session.

Negotiations Bulletins—Simple and Published before the Employer’s

When you have a big committee present, and many additional workers attending negotiations, there’s a vast, built-in volunteer corps filled with the talents needed to bargain and to do such things as write the negotiations bulletin—as the negotiations are taking place! Worker volunteers are asked to take key notes, and to capture the energy by taking photos of one another and workers who showed up to present, or to witness, or to participate in any other way—all during breaks in the negotiations, of course. These materials can be turned into a flyer within minutes of negotiations wrapping up for the day. In a big team, some members volunteer to go to a copy shop and make dozens, hundreds, or thousands of fliers, while others wait at the facilities, ready to place the news into the halls of the workplaces immediately. In this way, the workers have framed the events of the day before the management team has even had a chance to sort through their often legalistic approach to communications.

To win in any setting, against any employer, it’s crucial to prepare a power-structure analysis of the employer—not only a traditional corporate analysis but a more robust analysis that helps workers understand the employer’s relationship to the geographical arena in which the negotiations take place. Who holds power in the area? Which is the employer connected to, and how? Once the workers’ internal structures are strong enough to be strike-ready, it’s essential to engage with workers about all the people they know in the community. By directly engaging the workers in the process of charting their own connections to local power structures, they can collectively bring those connections into the collective-bargaining process for maximum power and public-interest outcomes. There’s simply no way to bring the broader community’s interests to bear in negotiations unless and until the workers’ power itself is at the highest possible level. This dynamic in negotiations—the interplay between workers, their community, the power structure, and checkmating the employer—produces the kinds of gains that lead more workers to be willing to overcome the employer’s often brutal tactics in unionization campaigns.

In the Einstein negotiations, once workers had elected their full negotiations team and achieved majority participation in structure tests across the hospital, they turned to systematically charting their connections to the power structure in the city of Philadelphia. On the first day of this worker exercise, dozens of power connections between the workers and the power structure were revealed. The connections soon yielded an outpouring of organically generated support. The power of just one of the 1,000 Einstein nurses—Joyce Rice—produced a sternly worded letter from an alliance of some of the most powerful Black churches in Philadelphia to the CEO of the hospital. In turn, that allowed major politicians to be more secure when they demanded the CEO settle a fair contract: they stood not only with the workers but also with powerful faith leaders.

The workers in this report won, and won significantly. By approaching each contract campaign as an opportunity for maximum worker participation and deep community engagement, unionized workers still can win big. And these substantial wins are a beacon for workers everywhere.


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