Opinion guest column

Do members run this union?

Lack of deliberation over open bargaining is a symptom of deeper issues

In an infographic circulated by the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU) in Fall 2021, the union contrasts its “grassroots union organizing” approach with “admin-dictated advocacy” to demonstrate why the former is superior for empowering graduate student-workers. While admin-dictated advocacy is private and unaccountable, grassroots union organizing is transparent, public and democratic. In order to drive home the point, the graphic states that “[o]ur union, as part of UE [United Electrical Workers], will be committed to open bargaining to keep the admin accountable to grad workers and to keep the broader grad worker population informed and engaged” (emphasis added). Open negotiations are contract negotiations where all workers covered by the collective bargaining agreement can attend.

Fast forward to today, just days before contract negotiations are set to begin between the GSU and MIT’s administration, and the union has recently announced internally that bargaining will, in fact, be closed to all graduate students, save for members of the Bargaining Committee (BC) and a handful of graduate students who may be invited to discuss specialized bargaining topics. This seeming reversal in policy was decided behind closed doors by the BC and was not even subject to debate among the union’s own central decision-making body, the Department Organizing Committee, let alone among the grad student population at-large. The BC’s stated reasons for rejecting open bargaining were roughly threefold: 1) low attendance would signal weakness to the administration; 2) a vocal minority of grad students could sabotage negotiations; and 3) the bargaining guidelines discourage impromptu comments, and therefore grad students would not get much out of it.

The first point — that dwindling attendance would suggest a weakened position — is certainly of concern but is exceedingly pessimistic and defeatist coming from union organizers. The very role of an organizer is to galvanize workers to become active participants in their workplace, and this includes getting them to show up to bargaining sessions. Union organizers are right to be concerned about dwindling support. However, the solution is to redouble efforts to increase participation, not to close off avenues to participation. A more optimistic perspective would be to recognize that high attendance by the rank and file will empower and energize the BC to stand up to the administration and fight for the most favorable contract possible.

The second point — that a vocal minority could sabotage bargaining — could also be interpreted as pessimistic, insofar as it suggests that the rank and file cannot be trusted to behave with civility in the negotiating room. While the BC has provided no examples of negotiations that were sabotaged by unruly workers under open bargaining, there are a plethora of examples of successful open bargaining at other workplaces. In a recent white paper by veteran labor organizer Jane McAlevey entitled Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations, McAlevey, while extolling the virtues of open bargaining, recounts first-hand experiences with it across a number of diverse workplaces, where ground rules are set to ensure that negotiations proceed in an efficient and civil manner. Workers are typically required to agree to four ground rules before entering the room: 1) maintain a “poker face,” as in show no emotion or other response, unless pre-planned; 2) no one speaks except the designated negotiators, unless pre-planned; 3) workers send notes on index cards to the negotiators whenever they want to speak, relay information, or take a break; and 4) no pictures, recordings or cell phone use. McAlevey claims: “In 20 years of big and open negotiations, I’ve never seen a worker violate the rules.”

As to the BC’s final point — that grad students won’t get much out of attending open bargaining sessions — McAlevey has much to say to the contrary. Attendance by the rank and file builds trust between them and the BC. Transmitting information to the members about bargaining becomes much easier when they are able to witness the proceedings for themselves. Workers gain a greater sense of agency and belonging in the union when they are able to participate, even if only by sitting and observing, and gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for the inner workings of their union. And, finally, open bargaining gives workers first-hand experience of the nature of labor relations, where they can monitor the behavior and disposition of their employer and oftentimes observe the condescension and bad faith they exhibit towards their workers.

But open bargaining is not just enacted successfully by the Philadelphia nurses or New Jersey teachers from McAlevey’s case studies; it is also used by our peers at other universities. Organizers for the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at New York University (NYU), the oldest private university grad student union in the country, have stated that open bargaining sessions have been “instrumental in bringing people in” and “the experience of witnessing, even on Zoom, the dismissal and condescension that we face at the bargaining table is radicalizing and mobilizing.” Similarly, organizers from Student Workers of Columbia describe how the pandemic led to a flourishing of “rank-and-file participation and radicalization,” such as making their already-open bargaining sessions more accessible to the average member. This included moving sessions to more accessible locations and times, as well as offering remote attendance options. The histories of the unions at NYU and Columbia, as well as at the University of California system, are particularly instructive, where reform caucuses called Academic Workers for a Democratic Union have been formed to promote more open, democratic structures in response to the closed, top-down structures of their union leadership.

Regardless of one’s position on open bargaining, we all ought to be troubled by the lack of democratic control over important strategic decisions within our union. Compare the lack of meaningful deliberation by the GSU on open bargaining with the GSU’s deliberation and decision-making on another consequential issue, the decision over which national union to affiliate with in Fall 2019. In the weeks leading up to that decision, the issue was researched extensively by a dedicated committee, of which I was a member. This committee then wrote a detailed report that weighed each option and was circulated to the membership, a town hall meeting was held that was open to all members to discuss the importance of the affiliation decision and the merits of each national union we were considering, and a secure online vote was conducted that was open to all members (since we weren’t public at the time, this generally included any graduate student who was supportive of the union). While this process was by no means perfect, it remains the closest instance of participatory democracy in the brief history of the union. There is no reason why a similar decision-making process could not be replicated, in part or in total, for deciding other important issues like the structure of our first negotiations with the administration. 

Unfortunately, the GSU has since rejected holding town hall meetings that are open to all graduate students for the purpose of discussing important issues, instead preferring to communicate almost exclusively through one-on-one conversations between union organizers and graduate students, such as in the lead up to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election last Spring, and through departmental-level meetings. The arguments given against providing open town halls were similar to those arrayed against open bargaining: that they would provide a platform for a vocal minority of bad faith actors. Unfortunately, in my experience in the union, there is often a conflation of anti-union sentiment, on the one hand, and criticism and dissent by concerned members on the other. 

This philosophy of restricting discussion about the union to small, interpersonal exchanges between organizers and members within individual departments dictates the strategy for keeping members informed on bargaining: a Contract Action Team is charged with providing updates to constituents about what is going on during negotiations behind closed doors. While this kind of relational organizing is critical, and much lauded by experts like McAlevey, it should be coupled with efforts to provide open forums where members can access union leadership directly, and provide input, and obtain answers to questions, on important strategic topics. The benefits of open forums are many-fold: they allow the cross-pollination of ideas and the building of solidarity between like-minded individuals and departments, and they provide an outlet for constructive criticism of our union and an opportunity to hold leadership accountable. The importance of such meetings is laid out explicitly in a pamphlet from our national union partner, the UE, called Them and Us Unionism: “High levels of membership participation are encouraged and made possible by the structure of our local unions. Regular membership meetings are held where the rank and file acts on all matters affecting the operation of the local.” Indeed, the GSU’s Affiliation Committee recommended affiliating with UE in large part for this emphasis on rank-and-file unionism in which, as the UE motto states, members run the union.

In understanding what Union Democracy means, we can do no better than the description given in this same UE pamphlet: “Democracy is more than just holding votes — it is an active commitment to make sure that as many members as possible are informed and participating in their union. High levels of membership participation, and the willingness of UE members to stand up for a union that they control, is what allows us to keep our organization independent of the bosses.” In voting “yes” in the NLRB election and voting for union representatives, student-workers were not agreeing to give up their democratic rights and sit on the sidelines until they are needed to ratify a contract or authorize a strike. Democracy is not best realized through elected representatives who act on our behalf, but rather through the active participation of all of us. A top-down, undemocratic union that views its relationship with the rank and file transactionally, where promises can be made to garner support and votes in the short-term and then rescinded unilaterally and non-transparently, only hurts the workers that it professes to represent.

Patrick Moran is a seventh-year graduate student-worker pursuing a PhD in Physics. He is also a member of, and a former organizer with, the MIT GSU.