Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Labor’s Survival/Labor’s Revival
Working Papers on the Trade Unions

Edited by Susan Cummings & Jonathan Hoffman for the Trade Union Commission of the Proletarian Unity League


I am going to talk today about the nuts and bolts of organizing around contract negotiations. I’ll draw mostly on experiences in local contract struggles. It is at the local level that the left in the US trade unions today has the greatest opportunity to influence the conduct and outcome of contract struggles. It is still much more difficult for the left to have an impact on the major national contracts in auto, steel, trucking, mining, etc. because of its small size, the isolation of rank and file groups from each other and political divisions and sectarianism among groups and individuals active on the left. Building national organization in the major unions and industries will be an important goal for activists in the 1980s. But the overwhelming majority of US workers are still covered by local agreements only. We have accumulated some valuable experience in local struggles and we should sum it up.

The left may be quick to see a sell-out coming. But often it does not have the experience to handle the responsibilities of negotiating and successfully leading a contract struggle itself. Too many left-wing slates swept into union office on a wave of progressive sentiment have been unable to carry out their duties effectively and have gotten booted out. There are experienced, progressive-minded trade union leaders who can teach us some things we need to know. But there are things that distinguish the left’s perspectives from those of the progressives. I will be talking about some practical guides to organizing. But I will also be drawing out what is – or should be – distinctive about the leffs contribution. I will concentrate on three topics that the left often overlooks: laying the groundwork with early contract preparations; the role of the negotiating committee; and drawing up a balance sheet. I am not going to talk directly about strikes because that is a whole topic of its own.

Laying the Groundwork with Early Contract Preparations

In some ways, unions have to prepare for contract negotiations at all times. Workers rarely win language improvements at the negotiating table that they have not fought for during the life of the contract. Trade union activists – stewards especially – have to continually assess strenths and weaknesses in the current contract. Good stewards are always out on the shop floor seeing that provisions of the contract favorable to the workers are enforced and challenging the enforcement of provisions favorable to management. Stewards can involve the rank and file in grieving management encroachments and help members to see the need for new or stronger language in the next contract. Unfair practice and violation of past practice grievances can lead to written precedents and improvements in contract language.

There does come a time, however, to get down in earnest to preparing for the contract negotiations. I would say a Local union has to make a definite push one full year before the contract expires.

In the weeks prior to and during contract negotiations, management generally campaigns to convince workers (and in the case of the bigger corporations, the general public and the government) of how little it can afford to offer and how many changes in the production process are necessary just to keep the company competitive. One of the union’s first responsibilities is to counter this company propaganda. The union obviously cannot afford to accept the company’s claims at face value: it must make its own assessment. What were the company’s profits last year? Are our wages and benefits competitive with those in other parts of the industry – or in other divisions of the same company? If business is bad, just what is the reason? Will holding wages down really solve the problem? Education of the membership around these kinds of questions can sometimes be done through the Local union’s newspaper. Other publicity for the union’s point of view may be harder to come by. In many industrial cities and towns, the daily newspaper is a company mouthpiece. In one recent Local contract, for example, the local paper ran articles about how the upcoming contract would be settled amicably – no need for strike talk. Activists set out to counter this media blitz. They organized a collection among the membership to put an ad in the newspaper publicizing the basic union issues. This ad was very successful: the activists got to talk to people about the issues in the negotiations and got the union’s point of view out to the public.

The left should work for a common and militant commitment among all activists to winning critical demands well before negotiations open. Then we need to go on to popularize these demands among the rank and file. A big drawback to last-minute contract preparations is that certain types of demands are hard to get on the bargaining table and keep there. The company often goes to great lengths to sweep some issues under the carpet. For example, management may be trying to introduce new, automated production processes and avoid responsibility for job retraining. Or it may want to close down its operations and evade responsibility for the social and economic costs. Depending on the union leadership’s effectiveness and the membership’s sophistication we can prepare for these challenges and successfully meet them. In 1981 contract negotiations, the Bituminous Coal Operator’s Association got a clause into the first contract proposal that would have ended its obligation to pay royalties to the union for processing coal mined in non-union mines. The UMW rank and file did not just look at money up front; they know that the growth of non-union mine production poses the greatest long-term threat to their present relatively high wages and benefits. They turned thumbs down and struck. Most unions aren’t the Mineworkers, so alerting members to long-term threats to workers’ rights and living standards requires persistance. Supporting the most popular demands is only part of the left wing’s responsiblity. Making sure that all the important issues get out there is essential. And this means early contract preparations.

Contract issues which challenge divisions and inequalities among the workers – or, for that matter, those that maintain or deepen these divisions – also demand careful attention and early contract preparation. Any single demand for parity or recognition may be more or less critical to a section of workers in the union. But once a pattern develops where few, if any, of these demands are ever getting dealt with, you have the makings of a serious erosion of the union’s power and integrity. Sometimes the main contradictions emerge between skilled and unskilled workers, new hires and long-term employees or day shift and the night shifts. While these sorts of contradictions may have dramatic short-term consequences for the trade union struggle in any shop, those divisions which develop along sexual and national lines are more debilitating and usually more resistant to change.

Here are a couple of examples ot wnat I’m talking about. Women workers in one plant have for years been hired into the lowest-paying labor grades. They have demanded across-the-board job reclassification and upgrading of these jobs based on the argument of equal pay for comparable work. But in contract after contract the union leadership has gone for straight percentage increases in wages. As a result of union support for the “common” demand for higher wages, the gap between women workers and the largely male workers in the higher labor grades increases.

In another plant, oppressed nationality workers have pressed for the establishment of a machinist apprentice program open to production workers. Skilled machinists there are now all white, while there is a high percentage of Blacks and Latinos among the production workers. The union leadership consistently ignored this demand. Instead it backed skilled workers’ demands which had the affect of keeping the skilled trades an exclusive white preserve open only to a small circle of people with connections among machinists already on the job. The union leadership defended this policy on the grounds of protecting the status of the skilled tradesmen.

Naturally the company is interested in nurturing and aggravating such contradictions: partly because it can be profitable to deny improvements, but especially because these contradictions weaken the union’s ability to fight. Unfortunately many union leaders play right into the company’s hands. They assess the relative priority or merit of various contract demands in a narrow, self-serving way. Such leaders are chiefly concerned with delivering whatever will assure ratification of the contract and shore up their power base in the union. So while everyone’s demands may appear on the union’s laundry list at the outset, it is not unusual to find that as negotiations progress some demands very quickly go up for grabs as bargaining chips so that progress can be made on the “really important” issues. Yet oppressed nationality and women workers in union after union are still expected to refuse overtime and bear the hardships of a strike along with everyone else, year after year – listen to complaints that they are not strong union supporters – despite the fact that their concerns are never quite important enough to make it into the final rounds of negotiations.

The left has a key role to play in safeguarding the integrity and principled unity of the workers. This is necessary it the union struggle in the shop is to progress. But it is also necessary if the left is going to help to build a class conscious workers’ movement in this countrv. A workers’ movement which takes a narrow, “me-first” outlook towards economic issues; which scorns the demands of women and oppressed nationality workers for equality in the workplace and in the union, is not likely to travel very far along the road to progressive political action.

The left cannot play its proper role if it confines itself to leading a militant fight for the lowest common denominator demands. It cannot play this role by just rushing around from one constituency to another encouraging each to organize in their own behalf. It cannot play this role by simply tacking on demands around sexual and racist discrimination to its list of contract demands at the last minute - or by simply leaving these demands off on the grounds that no one is organized to fight around them. Of course, the left cannot go off and organize only around what it considers the key issues when most of the workers haven’t been convi need of their importance. The left has a responsibility to join in and negotiate and fight for those things which, in the end, the majority of workers perceive as their most pressing needs. Otherwise the left will become irrelevant to the struggle. But if the left does its work well, it will begin to influence not only how the membership fights but what the membership is prepared to fight for.

Sometimes a section of the workers looking for economic parity and protection of their rights on the job need to be convinced that they can challenge the status quo - especially if they are a minority in the union. They may need help formulating one or two demands that have a reasonable chance of gaining support and in developing tactics and activities to rally their supporters and to press their demands among the membership at large, as well as against the company directly. The more organized, visible and articulate a grouping is, the better its chance of success.

In my Local, we have a small night shift. As a percentage of the membership, they are not too significant. For years, they have been passed over on contract demands having to do with the night-shift differential. They got pretty cynical about ever winning, too. This last contract, some of us went to the night shift workers and argued that even with their small numbers they could win. During union meetings they started sitting together, making a lot of noise and constantly raising their concerns. They cheered each other, button-holed their fellow workers from days, and promised to vote against any contract settlement that failed to address their problems. By the end of negotiations, they had won almost all their demands.

Get Organized

Workers become convinced of the need and possibility for a fight at contract time through education, open discussion and experience. Then these good ideas must be backed up by organization. Locals offer more or less opportunity for internal democracy and rank and file involvement. Even more progressive unions generally require initiative and struggle by activists to get some steam up. Some unions circulate questionnaires that ask workers to list priorities for upcoming contract negotiations. These encourage discussion of and interest in the upcoming contract but do not in themselves resolve differences in members’ viewpoints. Some elected negotiating committees can organize department meetings to discuss specific contract proposals. Sometimes the leadership organizes mass meetings. Where traditions of democratic discussion exist we should use them; where they do not we should institute them.

Financial preparations also build momentum. Most local unions do not provide anywhere near enough money to live on during a strike. In my union, we had a lot of success with a $5.00 a week club. We circulated a sign-up sheet where people committed themselves to putting away $5.00 a week for a year leading up to the contract deadline. Almost the whole shop joined in. This accomplished a few things. First, it made people really aware of the upcoming struggle and their personal stake in it. Second, it allowed us to talk to everyone about the contract issues. Third, it showed the company that we were getting organized. And finally, when we did go on strike, it helped people who were feeling the pinch.

Another part of the financial preparations angle is the shut-off of overtime. Again, this is something that everyone can participate in. Now one school of thought says that stopping overtime is a symbolic gesture – something to be used in the later stages of negotiations if the company tries to get tough. In the meantime, workers should use overtime to build up their savings accounts. Another school of thought says that shutting off overtime weakens the company and organizes the rank and file for battle. I generally agree with this second point of view, but you have to take conditions into account. You cannot force an overtime shutoff down the throats of an unwilling membership. You will split the union that way. But if conditions allow, shutting off overtime as soon as possible will not only hurt the company financially, but also prepare the workers for future united action and sacrifices.

When negotiations heat up, it is time for other morale builders. Getting people to design and distribute bumper stickers, buttons and tee shirts with slogans relating to the contract are pretty popular. But the main thing as events come down to the wire is to get a union strike organization set up. Strike committees in place before the deadline are absolutely essential. It scares the hell out of management and inspires the workers with confidence and determination that they can successfully take on the company. It is too late to set up committees after the strike vote is taken. In many strikes the first day or two of activities will settle which way things are going to go. If the union has not even begun to put together picket rosters and train picket captains; if it isn’t ready on the first day to press the union’s case in the papers and on TV and radio then many times you can just hang it up.

The best kind of strike organization is open to rank and file participation, geared to drawing in the largest possible number of workers, capable of swift and decisive action and able to make political as well as technical decisions about how the strike should be run. In the last weeks of negotiations we should drum up interest and volunteers especially for: (1) a committee to organize the picket lines. This committee makes sure that people come down to the lines and keep coming down. But it also works out tactics for the picket lines. And it plans activities that will keep the picket lines strong and spirited: thinking up chants and preparing song-sheets; organizing visits by union supporters to the picket lines; providing entertainment on the picket lines, etc. Strong stewards are usually critical for this work; (2) a committee in charge of keeping the membership well-informed. Immediately this means getting out strike and pre-strike bulletins. Every time something big happens, the workers need to get an explanation from the union about what it means. If the strike drags on, this committee can also take charge of organizing other kinds of education including film showings, speakers from other unions, and so on; (3) a welfare committee that oversees the distribution of strike benefits as well as helps members to get other forms of economic assistance; (4) a publicity committee that sees to it that the union’s point of view is getting out; and (5) an outreach committee which organizes various kinds of material and political support from other unions and from the local community. In order for a strike to be a “school of war” – an opportunity for the workers to advance politically, and not simply to be passive observers as the “expert” union negotiators go after a better economic deal – we must build democratic strike organization in the union.

Besides strike organization, a Local might try to organize a mass demonstration or two. Long membership meetings on working hours are a nice touch. Having the second shift call in sick on the final night is also good. In my shop we have a favorite last-minute preparation. On the final day of negotiations all the mechanics and.machinists pack up their tools, put them on carts and roll them out to the parking lot to take home. Other workers clean out their lockers. This little drama tells management we are serious.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

My Local is pretty progressive and I hold union office, so I have had a chance to try out some ideas about how to prepare for a good contract fight. But in many unions today, right-wing union leaders resist initiating the steps that are crucial to a successful contract battle. How the left deals with this resistance and attempts to overcome – or circumvent it – is a key tactical question that will come up time and again in the course of the preparations.

Everything we do during the period of contract preparations must be clearly aimed first and foremost at building anti-company sentiment among the rank and file and bolstering their unity and determination to win a good contract. We should out-organize, out-maneuver and outflank a conservative or timid union leadership: the union leadership needs to feel that if they do not get off their ass and deliver on certain things then they will run the risk that these things will get done without them.

Why do I say we should not attack the leadership head-on? Why should we avoid putting out flyers that “expose” the “two lines” – ours and the “sell-outs” – on how the contract fight should be waged? The reason is simple. The rank and file needs and wants strong leadership for a new contract. A militant rank and file group worth its salt has to provide some of this leadership if it is to be taken seriously. But that grouping must conduct itself in a manner that shows clearly that it is not out to build its reputation at the expense of the interests of the membership as a whole. It should be ready to explore every opportunity for unity of action with the union leadership. The rank and file knows that the union leadership holds a lot of trump cards when it comes to making or breaking any left initiative. They also know that if things degenerate into a deep and open split between the established leadership and its supporters and a left-progressive wing that the company will benefit. There is plenty of room for initiative in the contract period, but we need to work towards the strongest, broadest possible united front against the company. The time to settle scores about who really had the interests of the membership at heart is generally after the contract is signed.

The Role of the Negotiating Committee

Understanding the role of the negotiating committee is crucial. What do we need to understand? Well, for one thing, when negotiations start in earnest, members of the negotiating team sometimes find themselves locked up for days with management and out of touch with the rank and file. This physical isolation means that not all the best people should run for negotiating committee. During negotiations the workers need leaders available to organize during work on a day-to-day basis. In fact, a conservative union leadership may not oppose left-progressives who run for negotiating committee precisely because victory will leave them out of the shop and the union leadership free to organize – or not organize – the rank and file.

The workers need accountability from union negotiators. Where a team is dominated by conservative forces, an active membership can demonstrate that it will not accept a contract proposal that falls short on key demands. Where the team is strong, it still needs feedback about the mood in the shop. In the face of management stonewalling are demonstrations and rallies by the rank and file a possibility? How can they be timed to maximize their effect? Will the membership stand fast on the current negotiating priorities? What is the right-wing in the union up to? Is it trying to undermine the work of the negotiating team and is it meeting with success? If you have never negotiated a contract, it is hard to appreciate the kinds of pressures, lies, intimidation and antics that management subjects union negotiators to. Even good people can lose perspective. While a negotiating team cannot win at the table a whole lot more than what the membership is prepared to fight for, it can through its own disunity, fumbling or faintheartedness lose a whole lot at the bargaining table. An organized membership and a team accountable to it can sometimes help to prevent this.

Direct communication between negotiators and the rank and file can be difficult to establish. The team may work behind closed doors and under a news black-out. The classic excuse for a lack of information and communication is: ”We can’t show management our hand.” While management will use open discussion of negotiations to refine their bargaining strategy, in nine out often cases the union gains more than it loses by keeping the membership well-informed.

At the same time, negotiating committees also need to have their own independent leadership role. If a negotiating committee just shuttles back and forth between the company and the membership, submitting each new offer, management can see how many votes are picked up each time around. They can then calculate how to assemble a majority vote. The negotiating committee has become the company’s tool. Also the right gains every opportunity to organize a back-to-work movement.

In the case of a strike vote, the membership looks to the negotiating team and the union leadership. The negotiating committee generally reports to the membership on the state of the negotiations. Now suppose the negotiating committee stands up at a membership meeting just before the contract expires and reports the company’s “final offer.” Then they throw it open: “What do you want to do, take it or strike?” Well, from my point of view those negotiators have not done their job. The team needs to report what it thinks the membership should do. Team leaders should explain the company’s bargaining strategy, their own strategy, and how each has worked out. And they may have to put other officers on the spot. Will the union organize for a strike or will those responsible drag their feet?

Many conservative union leaders see definite dangers in mobilizing the rank and file. A “too” active or “too” involved membership threatens to overtake the leadership and narrows its options to bargain away things that the workers wou Id fight for if given half a chance. Therefore right or right-of-center leadership blocs try to keep rank and file activity under control during negotiations. They want to turn rank and file activity on and off like a faucet. If they do not think they will be able to turn it off, they will not turn it on. This is especially true where a left-progressive opposition has begun to challenge the old regime.

Even where leaderships do organize demonstrations as a tactic to prod obstinate management negotiators, they may not see them as connected to a general policy of keeping the rank and file informed and involved. Often top leadership tightly controls things and keeps the membership in the dark about the state of negotiations and why the demonstration is being called. In one contract struggle involving public employees, the union president in coordination with his staff threatened to file a politically embarrassing legal suit against the mayor in order to blackmail the city into granting several key demands. The workers heard very little about this strategy. They were expected to show up at a couple of downtown rallies and that was about all anyone said. As contract negotiations wore on and the deadline approached, the city stood firm. The elected negotiating team and rank and file activists started asking questions. Talk of strike preparations began to percolate. Still, the local president advised sitting tight in expectation of the city’s capitulation. Only days before the contract expired, activists started to organize the strike themselves.

Another point: even with a strong, elected negotiating committee and rank and file organization backing it, the regular executive officers hold a lot of cards during negotiations. In most unions, conservative leaderships keep tight control over official union flyers including bulletins from the negotiating committee. They can decide whether any official flyers or bulletins go out at all and often what they say. The left can put out independent flyers, but these lack the same credibility and force as negotiations reports that official flyers have. While negotiators can report a lack of progress and urge the union to prepare for a strike, only the union leadership has the authority to set up strike committees. Here again, the left has the option to launch some rank and file strike organization, but without the support of the union leadership mass rallies are harder to organize, media coverage harder to come by, and labor support harder to drum up.

In one contract situation, the left swept the entire negotiating committee. In part, their victory was due to the fact that the moderates in union leadership did not hotly contest the positions as they expected negotiations to be very tough and the chances for a good contract slim. However they gave only critical support to the negotiating committee, calling them “hard workers but inexperienced.” They would not allow any pre-strike preparations on the grounds that it would be negotiating in bad faith to commence such organization before a successful strike vote. While the left had a platform at all union meetings because of its position on the negotiating committee, only the center leadership could authorize organization of the membership and the publication of all leaflets, mailings and newsetters, and this they did halfheartedly. The left incorrectly opted not to challenge this “division of labor” either directly or by trying itself to build stronger rank and file organization in the day-to-day running of the strike.

A winning contract strategy counts on membership strength to bolster militant, progressive leadership on both the negotiating committee and among the union leadership. Sometimes playing off the contradictions between these two centers of authority in the union can be worked to the advantage of the progressive movement in the union.


A couple of final points about the process of negotiations and the question of trade-offs. First, trade-offs are a part of any contract negotiations. To think otherwise is just idealism. But there are a couple of things to watch out for. First, everyone should know what is getting traded off for what. Unfortunately, some union negotiators and leaders try to cover up trade-offs so as to make the contract more palatable. It can be more or less of a simple matter to figure out what trade-offs have taken place. Where the membership has a chance to read the whole agreement, the left should encourage frank discussion of why gains were made in one area and not another and whether the concessions made are acceptable.

There are all kinds of trade-offs. Sometimes it is money up front versus other economic benefits. But the trade-off we read about most often in the business section of the newspaper is the famous trade-off between wages and productivity. I used to be very puzzled about all the talk about productivity. After all, not too many unions sign contracts that say: “You give us more money and we’ll agree to turn up the speed of the line.” I eventually figured out that in contracts, productivity is substantially a question of shop floor control. Management wants unilateral power to change work rules and technical processes, introduce new technologies, assign personnel, discipline people, set hours of work, and so forth. Contract language that limits the union’s intervention in shop floor issues allows the company to squeeze the maximum effort out of the workers. Therefore management tries to avoid demands like job posting, no mandatory overtime, and the right to refuse unsafe work.

To extend and safeguard management rights the company will often trade money for a weakened union organization at the local level. The prevalence today of no-strike clauses that prohibit job actions over grievances indicates how flabby the US labor movement has become. Before World War II, no-strike clauses were relatively rare, but to further the war effort most unions signed no-strike pledges. Afterwards, the unions never got the right to strike back on the bargaining table, in part because of a willingness to trade it off for wages and benefits. Along with the loss of the right to strike, the business unionists traded away strong stewards’ system. In the UAW, each steward in the auto plants represents ten times as many workers as they used to in the ’forties! As a result, many auto workers’ grievances fall between the cracks. Today we see a new wave of attacks on the labor movement. The attacks are many-sided: aimed at wages and benefits, the rights of oppressed nationality and women workers, and union organization itself. When contract time arrives, we need a strong negotiating team, responsible to the membership, with a clear view of the challenges facing the union in all these areas.

Drawing Up a Balance Sheet

Down at the union hall, you often hear that no matter how hard the leadership works to win a good contract for the membership, the membership is never satisfied. Sometimes this is just a cover-up for a job poorly done. On the other hand, workers do have wide-ranging expectations of what could and should have been won.

Active workers generally know that you cannot win a good contract without a good fight. After playing a big role in contract preparations and strike activity, they may understand that given the relative strength of the union and the company, the economic climate and other political factors, the union won a pretty good contract. They may see that in the process the progressive movement in the shop gained strength and attach great value to this. Overall, they may sum things up as a victory. But when they get back to work, they sometimes come in for a rude awakening. Workers who were more distant from the battles that went on may feel a lot less positive. Less involved, or less sophisticated workers sometimes come away disappointed or confused about the settlement.

In one shop, Local negotiations directly followed coordinated bargaining among other plants in the same industry, but in another region of the country. Traditionally this Local simply “got” the same settlement that had just been concluded in these other plants. Challenging this pattern not only threatened the industry but also the entrenched union leadership of the other Locals. The left was determined to “break” the package. Because they had won a number of positions on the Local’s negotiating committee, they were in a position to give it a shot. “Breaking” the package meant, in part, winning greater wage increases. But since straight money issues always got full play in negotiations, the left concentrated on giving equal weight to health and safety, maintenance of benefits, and worker control issues: no scabbing on struck yard work, seniority rights, etc. The center controlled most of the top union positions. They were tantalized by the gain in power and influence if our Local could break the package deal but doubtful that it could be done. The center had more modest goals for the negotiations. If the left was able to create an upset, the center was ready to claim the glory. If the left fell on its face, they would be able to keep their distance from the fiasco. The right-wing was out of office at the time. They said they wanted a good wage settlement, but, as usual, hadn’t the slightest idea about how to go about getting it.

After a respectable, but not outstanding strike of several months, an agreement was reached that left and center leaders endorsed as the best contract going in the industry. The contract saved health and welfare benefits, gained many seniority rights, revamped the grievance procedure which had been used by the company to bankrupt the union treasury, and provided for greatly improved health and safety on the job. But it did not break the wage package. The membership voted to accept. The right denounced the contract because it did not contain significant wage gains, though they knew very well that such gains could not have been won without a much longer strike – something which they would have been the last ones to support. But not only the right was dissatisfied. Many less active workers were disappointed with the money settlement and therefore susceptible to the right-wing’s attacks. Some did not see the value of the other gains made, especially many of the younger workers new to the plant and to the union struggle. In the aftermath of the strike, the left realized that the agreement they considered a victory was viewed more skeptically by many rank and file workers. Not surprisingly, in the next union elections the left lost some positions.

In another situation, estimates of a settlement’s merits were directly tied to existing divisions and inequalities among the workers. What looked like a victory to some looked like a defeat to others.

In this hospital, the bargaining unit contained technical and clerical workers. The technicians were generally young, well-educated, a higher percentage men, and mostly white. They were well-organized and bent on getting a pay raise that would be comparable to that received by the nurses -11%. Their concerns generally reflected their more professional status and some were – and still are – interested in forming their own bargaining unit. The clerks were more diverse: mostly women, including a number of older white women, and younger Black, Hispanic and white women. Many were single heads of households. Their chief concern was for fairness in promotions and lay-offs. Some wanted strict seniority, others wanted seniority combined with affirmative action. In the course of a brief illegal strike the division between clerks and technicians produced some tensions. When the final offer came down the left and most of the clerical workers considered it a victory because of gains made in seniority language and because of the amnesty clause. (This was the first strike of public workers in this city for decades.) Times were rough for the public sector, and advances in these areas were seen as more critical to the survival of the hospital and to the interests of the working class and oppressed nationality communities in the city than bigger wage gains. But the left never really tried to convince the technicians of their perspective. As a result many of the technicians were dissatisfied because the final offer included only an 8% wage increase. Some techs accused the clerks and negotiators of “selling out” for job security.

The left should have realistic goals and recognize modest but significant victories. In the two situations I have just described, the left helped bring the struggle a certain distance, reached a plateau, and assessed that to try to go further was not possible. In both cases, obstacles to doing publicity and education among the rank and file during negotiations – in particular, failure to address the differing priorities among the workers and to take a stand on what the union’s priorities should be and why – led to some problems. In both cases the out-of-office right-wing sought to exploit the situation by playing up the shortcomings of the agreement. What should the left do now? Hang in there. Acknowledge real shortcomings, but also show how the contract gains will make a difference day-to-day.

Though less and less commonplace, sometimes a mediocre contract settlement is popular with the rank and file just because it has good money up front. But even if a settlement is popular, we should frankly point out important shortcomings. Many workers are happy at first to get a settlement, and glad to avoid a strike or bring one to an end. But once the relief wears off (and it will soon enough), people remember who told it like it was and who tried to do something about it.