How To Win Your Union’s First Contract

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Organizing a union is a huge achievement and one that doesn’t come easy. If you have gone through it, you probably had to overcome all sorts of vicious union-busting from your bosses to get there: lies about what a union is, captive audience meetings, intimidation and manipulation of you and your co-workers, and outright retaliation like cutting hours, closing stores, or firing. 

If you organized a campaign that was able to withstand all that and win a union election, you probably had concrete demands that you and your organizing committee democratically agreed were important and then talked to your co-workers about, explaining how the union is a tool to fight for those. Now you have to fight for a strong contract that puts into writing the things that you wanted to see changed in your workplace in the first place. 

This is a much tougher stage of the campaign than winning the union election itself, but all the same principles of building a strong union apply: having concrete demands, a solid organizing committee and elected leadership of committed workers, and democratic discussion and decision-making on all aspects of the union. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), employers are legally required to “bargain in good faith” with a certified union. However, there’s the law and then there’s the reality: employers use every tool at their disposal to stall negotiations and gum up the process. This can begin well before negotiations start as the results of union elections can be appealed and the certification process delayed as has been the case at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. 

None of this is solely a question of bosses and big corporations being bad or finding loopholes in the law – the law itself is written and applied in a way that is completely lopsided toward their interests. That’s because the government, the state, and the courts are not “neutral” institutions but exist to defend the wealth and power of the capitalist class that set up those institutions in the first place. 

On top of the power of the bosses leveraged against you, the tactics and strategy that most of today’s union leaders use to organize unions and negotiate contracts are quite weak. It takes an average of 465 days for a union’s first contract to be negotiated. Multiple years is not at all uncommon, and some unions never get there at all. 

Building a powerful union and winning a strong contract means taking a class struggle approach to organizing. Such an approach recognizes that anything workers gain comes at the expense of the bosses, and vice versa. A class struggle approach, by contrast, is unafraid to engage in the kinds of bottom-up, militant tactics that built the unions into such a powerful force in the first half of the 20th century, and will be necessary to rebuild them today. Nothing short of that will be strong enough to take on the bosses and the power of the entire capitalist class they represent and win. 

Building Power Outside The Bargaining Room

The boss’ power comes from their wealth and control over the workplace and political institutions. Our power as workers comes from the fact that we are the ones who make that wealth and profit for them through the work we do on the job. That’s why winning a strong contract that eats into their profits and gives workers substantially better wages, benefits, and working conditions means building power outside of the bargaining room, and almost always requires strike action, or at least the threat of it. 

It will never be enough to simply have “a seat at the table” in the bargaining room when the table itself wasn’t built by or for workers. Bosses care above all else about their profits and control, so there’s no amount of appealing to their good sense of morality through clever wordplay or legal maneuvers that will succeed. Strong contracts aren’t “negotiated” so much as imposed on the bosses over their resistance.

The Bargaining Committee

Power inside the bargaining room comes from power outside of it, but you still need a team inside, the Bargaining Committee (BC).  The BC should be strong, serious, trustworthy workers who are able to withstand the immense pressure they will come under from hotshot lawyers, intimidating bosses, and sometimes even government officials. If you are working with an existing union, there can also be pressure from the upper leadership of that union to accept something less than what workers themselves are willing to fight for. There will be pressure to adapt to the “official” bargaining process, even though this process is fundamentally disempowering to workers.

The Bargaining Committee needs to be elected in a fully democratic process open to all workers in the union, not appointed by the upper leadership of the local or national union. They need to be fully accountable to the workers and should see their role as being the representatives of the workers and directly accountable to them in the bargaining room. 

First and foremost, that means that the demands of the workers are the demands in the bargaining room – if the workers have democratically agreed on $30 an hour as what they want for a starting wage, then it shouldn’t be $25 that the BC proposes. If the proposal changes, that needs to be a decision made in a meeting of all workers.

Open vs Closed Bargaining

All of this is why bargaining is most effective when it is open rather than closed. Most unions today unfortunately use closed bargaining, where it is only the BC in the negotiating room and only its members who know what proposals are being discussed and the language in them. Unions will even lay down “ground rules” for the BC to enforce this. 

The leadership of most of today’s unions have abandoned the perspective of direct confrontation with the employer being the best and quickest way to win real gains for workers, seeing instead “shared interests” between them and the bosses. This means union leaders often tend towards compromise and negotiation, while the system of closed bargaining privileges the “expertise” of union officials, lawyers, and staff over the participation of an active, mobilized base of workers. 

Open bargaining by contrast still has an elected BC tasked with communicating with the bosses’ negotiators at the table, but these bargaining sessions are open to any worker to attend and watch. The language of different proposals being discussed during the negotiations is there for all to see, lending the kind of transparency to the process which is crucial for ensuring that the demands workers want to win is reflected in those proposals. 

For workers who aren’t able to be in the sessions themselves (which will often take place during many workers’ workday), there are also regular weekly or even nightly updates depending on the stage of the campaign you’re in. In these there should be a full update on what’s happened in bargaining, what proposals are on the table, and the opportunity for members to not only discuss and weigh in but to vote on certain critical questions such as major changes to a proposal. 

Keeping Up The Pressure

Any struggle needs an escalation plan which keeps up the pressure on your opponent and ensures that you keep the momentum you need to win. If you’ve organized a union, you probably have some experience with this already. Again though, winning a strong contract is twice as hard and so you’ll have to fight twice as hard. In addition to the Bargaining Committee, a union should also establish a Contract Action Team (CAT) with representatives on it from across the workforce and including all different locations, shifts, and job categories. The CAT’s role is to plan and execute the actions and escalation plan. 

With escalation you’re also helping workers build the experience and confidence of taking collective action together.  This can start with something as simple as organizing as many workers as possible to all wear a union t-shirt or button together. That may seem like a small thing, but it can go a long way towards building cohesion and solidarity among workers. That’s essential for being able to pull off something big like a march on the boss or a successful strike or work stoppage, which all require a high level of coordination and discipline.

Protests are an important escalation, where workers mobilize as many of their co-workers as possible alongside other union members and supporters from the wider community to a public location. A protest is also a good tool for engaging the media in order to bring more of a spotlight onto the struggle and use that to build more public pressure on the company. Community support and media attention are not substitutes for a strong campaign on the shop floor, but they are still important, and in some more public-facing industries like education or nursing can be absolutely make-or-break. 

The highest form of escalation is a strike, and it’s effective because when executed correctly, it stops the bosses from making profits.  In recent decades, the labor leaders have largely stopped using the strike weapon, believing being at peace with the boss is the best way to win better conditions. This failed strategy is reflected in the weak contracts that have been passed in many major unions, sometimes undemocratically over the wishes of the membership like in UPS with the Teamsters in 2018. 

Abandoning the strike is a key reason why unions are not as strong as they once were, leading to runaway economic inequality and worsening living standards across the board. In an era where wages aren’t keeping up with inflation and workers are putting in longer hours for less pay and benefits, most workers will be unable to win major gains in a contract, like cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) or a 30- or 40-hour work week, without going on strike. 

When Should You Sign And Agree To A Contract?

A good contract should be an accurate snapshot of the class struggle, it should represent how strong you are versus the bosses. Under normal conditions, and especially in times where workers across society are fighting back more like they are now, a contract generally should include substantial wage increases and improved benefits while also including the full range of issues that workers organized around and may well be unique to that workplace. Contracts can be dozens or even hundreds of pages long and are able to cover literally all aspects of life on the job, so nothing is “too small” to fight to include. 

A bad contract is one that’s signed while workers are still willing to fight for more. This doesn’t mean that more would have automatically been won, but it does mean that workers never got the chance to try. Too frequently in the labor movement a Bargaining Committee will reach a tentative agreement (TA) with the employer that falls short of what workers want and are willing to fight for, and then the BC will attempt to sell that to the membership as a victory. This is not because members of the BC are bad people or are not genuine, but because they are under immense pressure in the bargaining room. Without open bargaining and an escalation strategy to win, even strong union activists and class fighters can capitulate. 

If workers aren’t willing to fight for more, then there’s no point in a small minority trying to push a struggle farther than it can go. Not only would they not win, but it can lead to an even worse defeat along with exhaustion and demoralization. An orderly retreat, on the other hand, lets workers regroup and fight out another round for the next contract. This is compromise as a tactic rather than compromise as a principle, the latter meaning that you go into negotiations with the “goal” of you and the employer reaching a happy medium through bargaining down your initial demands. A union contract represents a ceasefire in the class struggle, and short of ending capitalism itself, will always represent some sort of “compromise” – but trying to achieve compromise off the bat is only a recipe to undercut the demands you and your coworkers formed a union to fight for.

Winning a strong first contract is a major accomplishment and an immense change for the better in the lives of you and your co-workers. The struggle for one is transformative even beyond the conditions of your immediate workplace, because it teaches people that they have agency and power in the world, and shows them what it means to fight and win. It also inspires other workers around the country, and even the globe, to do the same.