Union Bargaining Is a Contact Sport

In the spring of 1997, AWPPW Local 672’s union negotiators sat across the table from the company’s management team (which on this day included an eager, young cost analyst, already champing at the bit), awaiting their cost presentation.  These exhibitions had preceded every bargain I’d ever been involved with, going back to the early 1980s.

The presentation was all about comparative costs: labor costs, raw materials costs, energy costs, medical costs, tax costs, Procter & Gamble’s (our chief competitor) presumed costs, the paper industry’s costs, California’s costs, and, most importantly, the comparative costs of other company facilities, many of which were located in the Deep South, where they were always threatening to move us.

Gloomy and foreboding as these presentations were, we’d built up an immunity to them.  At their conclusion, our standard response was to nod thoughtfully, thank them for taking time to share that information, and quickly move on to other business.  The impression we wanted to convey was one of not giving a rat’s ass about some trumped-up cost statistics being paraded before us.  They had their priorities and we had ours.

While it was true that Local 672 had once enjoyed a “Cadillac contract” (high wages, great benefits, extravagant work rules), those days were long gone.   Three consecutive contracts weighted down with concessions, compromises and discounts had taken their toll.  Mind you, it was still a decent contract, a more than respectable contract….but it wasn’t a Cadillac. (Maybe a Buick?)

Cost presentations weren’t unique to the corporation or to the paper industry.  In truth, these dog and pony shows were fairly common.  Most companies feel compelled to give apocalyptic cost speeches prior to negotiations as a way of scaring or softening up a union.  Sometimes they actually work.  But common or not, two things made the ‘97 presentation different.

First, the company’s cost analyst surprised us by using a plant we’d never heard of—a paper mill located way up in Huntsville, Canada—as his prime example of a low-cost facility (initially, we thought he was referring to Huntsville, Alabama).  And second, the union responded in a manner that was totally out of character for us.  We exploded with rage.

What sent us through the roof was the company’s audacity.  It’s one thing to bullshit us; it’s another thing to lie to us.  Pretending with a straight face that our costs were way out of line—that we were wildly overcompensated, blah, blah, blah—was a tactic that not only didn’t bother us, it was a form of gamesmanship we’d more or less come to respect.  After all, bargaining is a contact sport, and you expect to get bloodied.  But having their cost analyst pull a stunt like this one, and thinking we would fall for it, enraged us.

Since the early 1980s we’d been so deluged with horror stories of runaway health costs that medical insurance now dominated all discussions.  We’d all heard how much our company and other companies were spending, how $1,600 of the sticker price of cars built in Detroit went to health care, how spiraling medical costs were the single biggest threat to the U.S. economy, etc.  As a consequence, we—like millions of other workers—had seen our co-pay go up, our coverage go down, and our paychecks shrink.

So why were the costs so astoundingly low at this Canadian mill—the one they were beating us over the head with?  Because Canada has national health care.  Which means the company isn’t required to pay a dime for health insurance!  And as we were to learn later, these Canadian mill workers’ wages were actually higher than ours, not lower.

They not only failed to share this information, they tried to conceal it.  Only after we pounced on it did they acknowledge free medical coverage.  Obviously, they were looking to gain leverage by having us think wages were so high in California that they might have to shut us down and move the whole shebang to Dixie (the threat hanging over our head for the last two decades).

To us, this little stunt went beyond gamesmanship.  And it wasn’t just the deceit we objected to; what bugged us was the company’s carelessness and naked transparency.  For them to think they could trick our bargaining board with a ploy as amateurish as this one was an insult to us, a blow to our pride.  That’s why we blew our corks.

I wish I could say our outburst had a salutary effect on the subsequent bargain but, alas, it did not.  In fact, other than being momentarily stunned by our tantrum, the company didn’t so much as flinch.  The way they saw it, they had tried to run a play on us and that play had failed.  Incomplete pass.  Okay, boys, back to the huddle.

As for the actual contract negotiations that began two weeks later, they ended the way most union negotiations have ended in the post-Reagan era.  They ended like any other bullfight.  The noble beast lies dead in the ring and the donkeys come in and drag it away.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. commoner3 said on February 10th, 2011 at 7:45pm #

    Very serious insightful article but was put in a very comic story. I laughed
    Thank you David Macaray.

  2. Dr. G said on February 10th, 2011 at 11:57pm #

    Yep – Health Care is a legal right here in Canada. Everybody has it. Period. Don’t believe anyone who bashes our awesome system. Why does Canada have so many successful, self employed entrepreneurs? Because we don’t have to work at shithole jobs just to get some crappy health insurance policy.


  3. John Andrews said on February 11th, 2011 at 1:57am #

    Whenever I went into union/management meetings I always thought it was like playing in a rigged game. Management always controlled the agenda and chaired the meetings; they controlled the information that was presented or admitted, and they controlled the way the minutes were written up – an often undervalued aspect of the job, as the minutes constitute the formal historical record (in my last year, 2002, management dispensed with minutes altogether, replacing them with “action points”)

    Sadly I also understood pretty soon that union leaders often had their own unwritten agendas too, which didn’t always coincide with workers’ best interests.