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The crumbs theory of bargaining


Having just lost a campaign for a “no” vote on my union CFA’s tentative agreement with the California State University by 75 to 25 percent, it is too easy to feel deflated and go back to the normal grind. After several one-sided votes in which previous TAs were ratified with 97 or 95 percent of the vote, our first campaign in two decades increased the “no” vote by an extraordinary 500 percent. 

Despite the progress, I am again asking why so many members vote “yes” on what was widely accepted to be a bad TA? 

A big part of that has to do with what I call the “crumbs theory of bargaining.” Our union, like most, has long pursued “interest based bargaining,” in which both sides cooperate to reach an agreement they feel provides more gains than losses.  

The problem is that we no longer realize the boss isn’t playing by the same rules. Our unions are playing a rigged game with this strategy, resulting in decades of losses. Although this failed strategy is gradually in decline, it is disappearing far too slowly.  

According to the crumbs theory of bargaining, leadership enters bargaining willing to give away critically important interests of some members to make incremental gains on the basics — wages, hours and working conditions. 

Despite the betrayal, leaders are not personally at fault. They are people working within a system designed to force those who want change to compromise to get anything while allowing those opposed to change to refuse to compromise. As a result, we get crumbs. 

Although few unions provide political education, most members intuitively know this is how the system works. Most of us hear the same message: that “we did not get everything we wanted but we made some progress that we can build on in the next round of bargaining.” As a result, many members hold their noses and vote for an unsatisfying TA because they fear the unknown outcome if they have to strike. They also know that if the boss just holds out, they will end up with less than the TA or even “nothing,” which is otherwise confused with the “last best offer.” 

We don’t need to look very far to where this intuitive understanding of how the rigged rules of bargaining comes from — our system of representative democracy.  As I wrote about in my last book, “We the Elites,” the framers of the Constitution designed our system to have so many checks on rule by the vast economic supermajority, or the working class, that any change can be defeated by stopping it just once anywhere in our constitutional system. While those who want change have to win every time, those opposed to any change only have to win once to defeat the change. 

The framers designed our system to force those who want change to repeatedly compromise to get anything done. We hear politicians say this all the time. What they neglect to add is that only those who want change have to compromise. Those opposed to change can do nothing and keep the system as is. As a result, what the working class gets in the end doesn’t look anything remotely like what they wanted. 

Our system of government almost never makes any changes the working class wants because we almost always lack the power and leverage to force the economic elite to concede anything. The only time we get change is when we are so disruptive that the economic elite have to give us something to restore order. And even then, what we often get are crumbs posing as a well-balanced meal. Even those crumbs are soon corrupted or snatched back once the disruption is gone. 

Our system of collective bargaining works the exact same way. Weak unions enter bargaining expecting to give up a lot to get a little. The bosses, on the other hand, can drag their feet knowing they don’t have to give up anything unless the workers force them to with a disruptive strike. They often retaliate against organizers because the costs of doing so are so small that they actually benefit by breaking the law.  

Collective bargaining was created after open class war between workers and bosses between the 1870s and 1910s and again in the 1930s that I wrote about in my first book,, “When Workers Shot Back.” The outcome of these struggles was determined only by the same kind of raw power the punk band The Stooges sang about.  

The 1935 NLRA changed all that by bringing workers and bosses together to collectively bargain. As a result, by sitting at the table the workers ended up on the menu as historian Howard Zinn famously warned us in his book “A People’s History of the United States.” Union leaders learned to be polite, ask for things and dress and speak like the boss by sitting at the table. Some even betray the workers by moving to the boss’s side of the table.   

Leaders and bosses develop a symbiotic relationship around the bargaining table. Union officers keep their jobs by using bargaining to deliver crumbs of “progress” to the members. The bosses give up the crumbs to keep the workers expectations low and restore control.  

After the TA is ratified, bosses work with the union to enforce the terms of the contract. As I have written about on these pages, most CBAs grant management wide power in the “management rights” clause to do anything not prohibited by the CBA. When the workers are ready to take on the boss the no-strike clause and labor law limits what they can do.  

As the number of disruptive strikes have been rising over the past few years, an increasing number of workers and even some leaders in auto, Hollywood, hotels and education unions are rejecting the crumbs theory of bargaining.  

They are instead coming for the whole pie.

 Robert Ovetz is editor of "We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few" and "When Workers Shot Back (Vol. 4)" and the author of "Real World Labor," co-editor of the forthcoming "Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle." Follow him at @OvetzRobert

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