Negotiations and the Power in a Union
(This article first appeared in the September-October 2015 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them . . .” Frederick Douglass - August 3, 1857.
The 2010 contract had the most substantial givebacks and concessions of any negotiated contract in the history of the APWU. The losses to the Clerk Craft were massive and multi-faceted and the union gave nearly $4 billion in concessions in wages and benefits over the life of the contract. The Postal Service will continue to reap those concessions in the future. Moreover, the Postal Service did not honor management’s contractual agreement to provide additional jobs to the APWU, which was exchanged for those concessions.
Despite the concessions and the Postal Service’s failure to honor their side of the bargain in the last contract, in this round of bargaining management is insisting on lower wages and benefits for future employees. This outrageous proposal is the main reason we do not yet have a contract.
As we continue to organize to gain a good contract and prepare for possible arbitration, it is important to understand that solidarity and power on the workroom floor, in the streets, and in the public arena translates to power at the bargaining table and in front of an arbitrator. The activism and power of union members and our allies are key factors in securing a good contract.
The Heart of Negotiating
The union’s contract proposals were based on resolutions that were designed by members, submitted by locals and states, and approved by delegates to national conventions. This democratic process ensures that contract proposals represent the will of the membership. This democracy gives us strength.
During negotiations, management sometimes questioned Clerk Craft representatives about whether employees really want a particular proposal. Each time we could say that the proposal was presented by one or more local and/or state organization, put forth at a convention, voted on by elected convention delegates, and adopted by a majority vote. We are empowered by the fact that our proposals to change the contract come from the membership and are supported by the membership.
So the hard work so many APWU members put forward to draft important resolutions and the significant conversations we had at conventions before deciding on our resolutions is a vital source of strength. It is the voice of the people. It is the beating heart of the membership present at the table. And it is heard.
Giving Credibility to Negotiating
Resolutions are one way to show how much support the membership has for a proposal, but management representatives may also ask for grievances or other indications that an issue represents a problem in the field. The Postal Service may want to know if there are sufficient costs or concerns before considering whether it is in management’s interest to consider a union proposal.
In cases where we did not have adequate numbers of grievances or other indications that locals were actively fighting for an issue, the Postal Service was inclined to quickly dismiss the proposal.
So APWU members, union stewards, and National Business Agents who work so hard to file and process well-documented grievances and engage in other actions to address contractual concerns, have been an extremely important source of bargaining power.
Alliances, Action Give Power
Activist members throughout the country have given strength and credibility to the National Negotiating Team. Actions large and small in locals small and large have not gone unnoticed on either side of the negotiating table. For example, after APWU members began wearing union shirts on Thursdays, managers in the San Francisco district started handing out free Postal Service T-shirts to employees and requesting that they wear the shirts to work on Thursdays. Clearly, this was intended to undermine the union.
Management’s actions in this case show their concern over postal workers showing solidarity during national negotiations. When the membership wears their union T-shirts and other gear at work, it helps build the union’s power in a very visible and influential way.
Sometimes the Postal Service seems to recognize the power of the membership even better than we do. That’s because their managers are outnumbered about 25 to 1. Any time a local is able to show their solidarity on the workroom floor or out in the community, the positive power of collective action flows straight to the bargaining table.
The APWU website has a specific section devoted to “Contract Campaign/Negotiations 2015” with “Activist Menus” to choose from and supporting material for educating the public on a wide variety of important APWU issues. Check it out at www.apwu.org/issues/contract-campaign-negotiations-2015,
Also, consider if your local would like to work with community allies to build A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service at www.AGrandAlliance.org. Our communities have a big stake in the wages and benefits of postal workers, as well as in the services we provide. Postal jobs are valuable jobs for every community.
Show the Arbitrator our Power
Arbitrators are very aware of power and the arbitrator’s determination of the balance of power between the APWU and the USPS will be a big factor in the arbitrator’s decision.
The arbitrator will be well aware of how much the APWU membership stands behind the bargaining team. We are confident in the strength of the resolutions the membership has passed, the willingness of our members, stewards, and NBAs to continue to support the union through the grievance procedure, and of the willingness of the membership to show their support through collective action should we go to arbitration.
Together, we can win a contract that we can be proud of.