The Lowdown on Negotiating a Contract

March 13, 2019

By Judith B. Cameron, PSU member

Serving on the PSU bargaining committee is undoubtedly one of the toughest PSU jobs. Negotiations can drag on over months and come with highs of winning significant gains and lows of feeling thwarted with stonewalling by management. Despite the challenge, members of the bargaining committee who negotiated the 2017-2020 contract say their service on the committee is meaningful and rewarding—and encourage others to consider a term on the committee. Learn more by reading  question and answers from bargaining committee members: Thomas McClennan II, a two-term bargaining committee member, Tom Goodkind, a veteran negotiator and grievance secretary, both from UMass Boston, Samm Smith, a first term bargaining team member, and Jo Martone, who has served for several years on the committee, both from UMass Amherst.

Why did you volunteer to serve on the bargaining committee?  Can you describe or relate a high point and a low point?

McClennan: Serving on the bargaining committee was a way to support my university, my union, and most of all my co-workers. The university benefits from the exchange of ideas that can happen when staff and administrators meet with open minds to bargain in good faith. The PSU is made stronger each time we exercise our collective voice, and that depends on each of us to speak up. Bargaining is just one of the many ways we can be heard. The high points are when my fellow members show interest in what’s happening at the bargaining table, the low points are when management doesn’t.

Goodkind:  I volunteered to serve on the bargaining committee because it’s one of the most interesting and engaging ways to serve our members, defend our union contract, expand our rights and protections, and ultimately build union power—even when it’s not entirely successful. I’m not ready to identify high or low points, because I’m in Boston, and those of us in Boston are still at the table bargaining over parking fees. For us, bargaining continued after the main contract was settled, moving on to impasse, mediation, and now fact-finding. The campus administration still threatens to impose a parking fee increase which would decimate the recent raises of many of our members.

Martone: For me, settlement always comes with great relief.  It is short-lived, though, as the next tasks on the horizon are the ratification, funding, publishing, and enforcement.  The first time I volunteered was only a few months after I had started at the university in 1999.  When I was younger, my mother had always been someone who followed the rules and did what she was told. After 20 plus years at her job,  peers told her it was “her turn” to serve on the negotiating committee at their school, so she reluctantly did. My mom found her voice during that time and continued to be active in bargaining into her retirement. I was never a shrinking violet and felt that if being on that team did that much for my mom, it would be awesome for me, so I ran for a spot on the committee and was elected. It was a great experience. I learned a lot about what management could and could not just do, and what the contract covered and didn’t cover. I have a much better grasp on the myriad of different people the union represents—some are strong and vocal, some are strong and quiet, and some cannot speak.  

Smith: I volunteered to serve on the bargaining committee because I wanted to become more involved with PSU in a way that I felt could make a tangible difference. I had only been working at UMass for six months prior to being elected, but I had been interested in workers justice before and saw the bargaining team as an opportunity to gain a deeper perspective of what goes into creating a contract, as well as the challenges the union faces when up against management and the UMass system.

How much time and commitment does serving on the bargaining committee involve?   

McClennan: The bargaining committee typically meets with or without management for a full day once or twice a month. Committee members should also expect to do plenty of work between meetings: surveying and organizing members, reviewing and drafting contract language, researching and rehearsing arguments for proposals, etc. Bargaining should begin at least six months prior to the end of the current contract (June/July 2020), and continue until an agreement is reached. Negotiations for the 2017-2020 contract started in December of 2016 and mostly ended with the ratification of successor agreement in November of 2018.

Goodkind: I won’t lie. Being on the negotiating committee demands a lot of time and commitment. You can count on an all-day meeting at least once a month (and more often when the bargaining intensifies), and team members are also required to interact and work on contract proposals in between the team meetings and bargaining sessions. But even more important than the time is the commitment to working through differences on the team and building unity around those proposals we’re determined to stage a fight.

Martone: Bargaining is the biggest time and energy commitment in the union. It takes more than being cochair, if you are fully participating in the process. And it is absolutely the most rewarding of all the union things I have done.  To be effective, a person will need to be able to listen, and to speak up and participate, not only to attend meetings, but to do research and work between sessions. If you are elected to serve on this committee, you will learn, and grow, and develop lasting relationships with people from all over the state.  I hope that many people consider this significant but vital and worthwhile opportunity to give to the community, learn, and grow.

Smith: The bargaining committee is not a light commitment. Between the pre-bargaining trainings, active bargaining sessions, and hundreds of emails in between, serving on the committee takes a lot of time—and it can be a steep learning curve if you’ve never served on the team before. It can be frustrating and exhausting at times, especially traveling biweekly to off-campus locations to meet with management and caucus. It’s definitely helpful if your work environment and supervisor are supportive of you taking on this role, as is it does require you to be out of office fairly often.

What skills are required or skills that are most needed?

McClennan: Patience, perseverance and a good poker face will serve one well. Flexibility and creativity are often needed, if not always welcome. Listening well is a far more valuable than speaking well. Rare is the finely-honed persuasive argument that brings management around to our point of view. Far more effective is the ability to listen to what management says and does not say and communicate that to our members and organize them around it.

Goodkind: I think the skills that are most needed are the ability to listen to others, to respect other’s opinions, to think both tactically and strategically, and to put the interests of our members and the communities we serve over our own narrow departmental or personal interests. Anyone with those skills can be a great asset to any bargaining team.

Martone: People often join the team with their own personal agendas. These people remind us of those things they find important, but as you represent the entire unit, you will need to lose all ego and work for the best of the whole community, which may mean sacrificing part of your own agenda.

Smith: Having a sense of solidarity with fellow bargaining committee members is essential, as well as the ability to see multiple perspectives on difficult issues. A strong team helps foster a strong union; likewise, a team that is divisive creates opportunity for management to edge its way in and weaken the union as a whole. I would also say that being a good listener is invaluable for both newbies and veterans to the team. Most of my time as a new member was spent taking notes, listening to the thoughts of seasoned committee members, and asking lots of questions. While I sometimes felt that my contributions to the team were minimal, I realized that the knowledge I gained was incredibly useful when I brought it back to the workplace and I could be a resource to my fellow colleagues.

What was your reaction when PSU and management reached an agreement? Relief? Thrilled?

McClennan:  I can’t say I was thrilled. And I wasn’t relieved because I know nothing ever ends. Certainly not the bargaining for this contract, where the battle continues at Boston over parking fee increases. Reaching an agreement doesn’t change anything, really. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the strength of the contract is in the enforcement. The contract is only paper, and improvements in language mean nothing without the will and hard work of our members to enforce that language by demanding our rights. And seeing our contract in action shows us where it could stand to be improved in the next round.

Goodkind: For Boston, the general contract agreement was only a step along the way, because we still had (and have) the draconian parking fee increase looming over us. Let’s just say that relief has been delayed.

Smith: When PSU reached an agreement with management, I was relieved we were able to ratify a new contract for our members, but also a little disappointed that we couldn’t get everything our members wanted (better tuition benefits, a resolution on UMass Boston parking, etc.). Something I learned was the importance of setting expectations, not just for the contract, but for your own personal contribution to the contract. Going into the process, it was easy to think of all the high hopes and goals you want to accomplish, but I didn’t realize until I was in the thick of it how much effort and work goes into every single contract change. It’s given me an entirely new appreciation for those who have bargained on more than one (and for some members, several!) PSU contracts.