COMMENTS of the WEEK | New or not new in labor negotiations?

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Can it be because winter is finally fading, and most Daily Planet readers have gone outside to watch the snow melt? Whatever the reason, last week’s crop of reader comments was unusually small — with one major exception.

The exception was a late-arriving but lively exchange about Peter Rachleff’s March 23 blog, The present, past, and future of collective bargaining. We called attention last week to several brief comments on that blog; this week we got some vigorous long ones. Here’s a run-down. To read the full texts, follow the link back to the Rachleff original.

Alan Muller posted some thoughts on “negative perceptions” that have weakened unions’ public support. He was pleased with Rachleff’s account of new bargaining approaches and raised “kudos to the St. Paul teachers for cutting a different path.”

Marc Beallor, however, wrote at length to argue that the welcome and successful bargaining strategies in St. Paul had important precedents that should not be overlooked. In particular he drew on his own experience in teachers and nurses negotiations in Ohio and elsewhere a decade and more ago. Traditional “management rights”, he said are not as embedded in public-sector labor negotiations as many “consultants, scholars and journalists” imagine.

Finally, Peter Rachleff, who started this discussion, entered it again with a direct and cordial response to Marc Beallor, acknowledging historical antecedents but urging strategies that “also live in the present … to galvanize the sort of transformation the labor movement needs.” [Facebook is hiding some comments, for reasons unknown to us — for that reason, all of the comments are reproduced below.]

To get the full flavor, follow the link to Rachleff’s blog post. And remember, reader comments are the lifeblood of community conversation in the Daily Planet. Join in. Agree or disagree. Praise or criticize. Be brief, be civil, be heard!

Full text of comments:

Alan Muller (3/24)

How nice to read something that actually makes sense, and offers some encouragement, about the current state of the labor movement. I’ve long thought that unions have lost support because of negative public perception. Teachers unions are about more money for less work …. Building trades advocate for horrible projects like the football stadium…. AFL-CIO supporting imperialism while emitting progressive rhetoric …. Of course, a lot of it is corporate crap, though there is enough truth in it. Kudos to the St. Paul teachers for cutting a different path.

Marc Beallor (3/25)

With all due respect for the author and for what appears to be a tremendous victory for the union, I must take issue with the above conclusion and certain other key points he raises about collective bargaining. The strategies and bargaining subjects raised by SPFT may have been new for Minnesota, but they are from being new in the United States. As one who served in numerous capacities representing teachers, educational support staff, and registered nurses for 25 years spanning the 1980s through 2012, I can state categorically that these bargaining strategies have been in use for decades. I was involved in presenting scores of bargaining proposals that included what in the ‘trade’ are called non-mandatory subjects of bargaining including staffing levels and the creation of new job classifications. On more than one occasion we were successful in incorporating some of those proposals into a contract. My own experiences were hardly unique.

Also not new is involving the community in the bargaining process. I was involved in a lengthy school strike in Ohio in 2001-02 while a Regional Director with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (AFSCME). While on strike, we joined with parents in demanding that the Board of Education agree to hold a public negotiations session. We were successful and that went a very long way to gaining greater public support and eventually winning the strike. AFSCME, the NEA, AFT, and NNU, have employed these tactics for years.

Also the claim that “While no one on either side of the negotiating table denied for a moment that these issues would cost substantial money to address, it is important to note that the union had not placed a formal demand for wages and benefits on the table. SPFT’s leadership was quite explicit that teachers’ compensation would be the last issue they would address. This really was a new approach to collective bargaining.” But was this really was a new approach? First of all, economic issues are almost always discussed and resolved last in any contract negotiations. Secondly, the useful tactic of not presenting a formal economic proposal was used on numerous occasions over the years – we would simply write “to be discussed” in lieu of a specific proposal on salary. Third, the fairly widespread use of Interest Based Bargaining, or similar spinoffs like “modified traditional,” formalized the process of not introducing specific proposals at the outset of the process. It could have correctly been noted that these more advanced and effective strategies and tactics you refer to have been too often put on the backburner for the sake of expediency, but that is quite different from claiming that they are new.

Also you wrote that “Seven-plus decades of collective bargaining practices have established a set of behaviors as ‘normal,’ ‘conventional,’ or ‘typical.’ These include: the grounds on which bargaining units are determined, such as the exclusion of foremen from membership in the same union as the women and men they supervise on the job; a machinery for the resolution of disputes and discipline, including grievance procedures, mediation, arbitration, and the right to strike; ground rules for unions’ use of the strike and management’s use of the lock-out; and the scope of bargaining itself and the claim of management rights. While none of these practices is dictated by the law, there are labor lawyers, management consultants, scholars, and journalists who talk about them as if they are non-negotiable.” But this is not the case in the pubic sector. In Ohio, all of the above are written into ORC 4117, the Collective Bargaining Law that was enacted in 1984. The same is true of Pennsylvania’s law and I would guess that it is true for most of the states that have such laws, probably even Minnesota.

Additionally, I must strongly object to two points made toward the end of the article:

(1) “Teachers themselves and the parents whose children they teach know best how children can succeed in challenging, and creative, school settings.” Management in the public sector is not the same as management in the private sector. There actually are some school administrators, I’ve met them and bargained with them, who really are concerned with and knowledgeable about the education of children. Many really do have expertise to go with their credentials. Certainly teachers and parents have a special contribution to make in addressing the complex problems of our educational system, but they don’t necessarily know best.

(2) “One can credibly argue that the managers of non-profit hospitals and other institutions have no reasonable grounds on which to challenge nurses’ and other healthcare workers’ efforts to bargain about patient staffing, the delivery of care, and other workplace issues about which they truly know little.” One might “credibly argue” that too many managers know too little. But to imply that all “the managers” universally “know little” about “patient staffing” – the correct terminology would be patient-staffing ratios – and “the delivery of care” in the highly complex institutions they manage is ludicrous. I’d be the last person to suggest that all management personnel are saints – I’ve dealt with plenty who displayed ignorance and incompetence. But, it would be wrong not to recognize that there are good and bad apples in every bucket.

The author does correctly note that there are deep problems with the collective bargaining process in the United States which have only gotten worse due to the relentless assault on unions and union rights. The problems of bargaining, though, are complex and defy simple solutions. Management’s rights are legally presumed as property rights and predate employee rights which must be fought for and enacted into law or contract. All labor struggles are struggles against management rights – including management’s inherent right to divvy up profits or surpluses, limited only by the presence of a union and collective bargaining. Labor laws, weak as they might be, contain either encroachments upon management’s rights or the formalization of those rights. So, the author is absolutely correct in asserting that unions, in general, have been too timid in challenging management prerogatives. But, this is what the struggle is all about. If or when we successfully get rid of management prerogatives that struggle will have essentially been won.

Peter Rachleff (3/25)

First, a correction — Saint Paul’s local is AFT no. 28. I mistakenly used the number for Minneapolis’ local. My apologies to both locals, and to readers.

Second, a response to Marc Beallor — Thank you for reading my article so closely and taking issue with both my argument and some of my evidence. In response, I will grant that here and there, particular unions may have pushed the envelope on bringing “non-mandatory subjects” to the bargaining table, but that (1) the dominant framework since 1946 has been for unions to take “management prerogatives” for granted, to the detriment of their members and working people as a whole, and (2) the post-2010 context in which the impact of both neoliberalism and neoliberalism’s crisis have brought new pressures on all parties, profit-seeking and non-profit business, private and public sector employers, blue collar and white collar unions, private sector and public sector unions, and more. It is this crisis (which I did not analyze in my article, but which I and others — particularly David Harvey and Sam Gindin — have analyzed elsewhere) which has pushed some unions to develop creative strategies, strategies which have historical antecedents but also live in the present, strategies which have the potential to galvanize the sort of transformation the labor movement needs.

Please bear with me for one more, new, story –North Carolina labor and civil rights activists, facing challenges grounded in the neoliberals’ efforts to solve their post-2007 economic problems through an agenda of austerity for poor and working people, that is by cutting access to health care and other public services and supports, and through a political agenda of attacking their opponents by restricting the right to vote, have been inspired by the Madison, Wisconsin, movement. Led by the Rev. Benjamin Barber of the NAACP, they have launched “Moral Mondays,” incorporating mass demonstrations and public singing at the North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh, and added an intentional dose of civil disobedience. Their political strategy and aesthetic has spread to Texas and Georgia, and is being hailed as the initiation of new populist movement in the South. It has also flowed back to Madison, where activists in the Labor Forward movement, which was at the heart of the “uprising” of 2010 and the Solidarity Singalong movement, last week held a workshop with Rev. Barber and have begun to reorganize as a new chapter of the NAACP in Madison!