This essay appears in our print issue, On Solidarity.

Rules to Win By: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations
Jane F. McAlevey and Abby Lawlor
Oxford University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Few of us have a voice in the political systems we are embedded in; the decisions that shape our lives are mostly made behind closed doors in rooms we can’t access. In theory, one exception to this rule is collective bargaining—a right that only 10 percent of U.S. workers exercise.

Is democracy intrinsically valuable, or primarily a means to a win?

The goal of collective bargaining is clear enough: to escape what philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls “private government,” the subjection of workers to the unaccountable authority of employers. By engaging in bargaining, the idea goes, workers can limit the scope of their employer’s control over their lives, improve their pay and benefits, and win protections to ensure they are treated with respect and dignity. In their new book, Rules To Win By: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations, veteran labor organizer Jane McAlevey and researcher Abby Lawlor expose how the practice of collective bargaining has often fallen short of this ideal. “Most negotiations today function a bit like our mangled democracy,” they argue. Union members may get to elect leaders and bargaining teams, but they rarely “experience the actual process of collective negotiations over the issues that are crucial, urgent, and relevant to their own lives.” Instead, they “are told that their role . . . is to vote to ratify or reject a contract presented to them at the end of lengthy, opaque contract negotiations” executed by union management and their lawyers. McAlevey and Lawlor want to empower workers to be more engaged and to change the script unions have long followed at the bargaining table.

The book arrives at the right time. Union election petitions shot up 53 percent from 2021 to 2022, and public opinion polling puts U.S. union support at its highest since 1965, with Americans now viewing unions more favorably than Joe Biden by almost two to one. Just as many workers are getting their first taste of organizing, McAlevey and Lawlor distill crucial insights from six case studies of recent union successes, offering vital prescriptions for making negotiations more democratic while building power vis-à-vis employers. Their central claim—that “high participation” is strategically effective—gives the lie to the supposed necessity of closed, backdoor dealmaking for achieving a win. They call their vision “maximalist,” and they see “the democratization of unions” as a “crucial goal . . . urgently needed around the globe.”

Given this argument, however, it is striking that many of the book’s examples of participation are fairly limited, often leaving little room for serious debate on strategy and in some cases amounting to little more than spectatorship. This tension raises a question: Is democracy intrinsically valuable as a form of worker dignity and empowerment, or is it primarily a means to an end—valuable only to the extent that it advances what union leadership takes to be a “win”? Many rank-and-file workers are offering their own answers in the spirit of Rules to Win By’s radical call, demanding new forms of bottom-up agency and rejecting the tendency to see dissent as an obstacle to worker empowerment.

The charges that McAlevey and Lawlor level at union “position holders” are damning. Top union officials have gotten “too cozy with top bosses,” they write, and the default approach of “top-down, backroom, low-participation” negotiations has gone “stale.” Unions not only fail to win contracts that workers need to work with dignity; they discourage workers from pushing for more. “The political theorist Robert Michels warned us over a century ago,” the authors observe, “that unions, political parties, and all organizations made up of everyday people have to build in guard rails against reproducing hierarchies.”

On this score, the book mentions the “sad and enraging story” of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which has long been plagued by leadership and corruption scandals, as “only the most recent example of what mass union democracy can help preempt.” In early March this year, just weeks before Rules to Win By was published, UAW saw its first direct election of leadership for the first time in the union’s eighty-eight year history, ending what critics call “one-party” control that has prevailed for decades. Reformers won a majority on the executive board, and the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, recently vowed to end backdoor negotiations.

McAlevey and Lawlor also take aim at negotiation experts. As they see it, neither of the best-selling primers—William Ury and Roger Fisher’s Getting to Yes (1981) and Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference (2016)—contain actionable advice for union negotiations teams. The former contends that identifying common interests of workers and management can lead to a win-win, but the presumption that “the employer is not only willing to settle but is willing to allow the other party to continue to exist” simply doesn’t hold today; now employers are “bent on an ideological crusade to wipe out unions altogether.” Voss’s prescription of “tactical empathy”—developed in the context of hostage negotiations—does not suit labor struggles either, since employers are as unlikely respond to emotional manipulation as to cooperative compromise. Rather than indulge the pretense of good faith, McAlevey and Lawlor argue, unions should do as employers do: pretend to negotiate but in reality exercise their power. And “to build maximum power, every single step of the negotiating process” must involve “intentional, mass participation.”

The authors defend three core tenets of union negotiations: they must be “transparent, big, and open.”

Rules to Win By thus defends three core tenets of union negotiations: they must be “transparent, big, and open.” Negotiations are transparent when negotiators do not sign ground rules that prevent who can be in the room, what can be negotiated, and what can be communicated with people outside the room; the ideal is to relay every update from the bargaining table back to the workers. Negotiations are big when every kind of worker finds voice via an elected representative in every session, even if that requires larger-than-conventional bargaining committees. Finally, negotiations are open when every stakeholder—including every worker covered by the collective bargaining agreement and sometimes community members affected by the business—can attend negotiations as observers.

To realize these three core tenets, McAlevey and Lawlor argue, unions ought to follow twenty strategic principles regarding negotiations. Among them are recommendations about how to submit the union’s request for information to the employer and how to prepare the bargaining team for a presentation of demands on the first day of bargaining. Having a detailed information request and sharing the resulting information helps build power, they argue, because it “helps inform workers of the larger pictures they’re negotiating within.” Similarly, asking workers to plan the first session and including trusted workers from the shop floor “can get negotiations off to a roaring start” because it signals to the management that workers are “in control of the negotiations.” These rules are not about how to negotiate particular articles in a contract. Rather, they are “tools that transform a union from low participation to high participation by way of contract negotiations.”

The six case studies in Rules to Win By are offered as proofs of concept. Perhaps the most thrilling occurs at Pennsylvania’s Albert Einstein Medical Center, where McAlevey was hired as a consultant and lead negotiator by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) union. The book gives a page-turner account of PASNAP’s campaign, complete with a months-long legal battle at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), additional staff flying in at McAlevey’s request from the British Columbia Federation of Labor, and a dramatic strike vote. The nurses participated in high numbers throughout the process. They chart social and economic relationships in their workplaces, have many one-on-one conversations, contact their political leaders and faith-based leaders to get endorsements, don’t let a moment go idle—and they reach an agreement within six months.

The win is compelling, but it is not always clear whether high participation is the decisive factor that leads to success in the book’s examples. Indeed, many of the cases involve departures from the twenty basic principles, and other factors evidently play a significant causal role. Given the book’s largely instrumental account of participation—the suggestion that worker involvement matters to the extent that it helps to build power and thus achieve a “win”—a reader might take these nuances as reasons to reject even the kind of participation that McAlevey and Lawlor call for.

Rules to Win By gives the lie to the supposed necessity of closed, backdoor dealmaking for achieving a win.

In PASNAP’s case, for example, the campaign abandoned bigness and openness by allowing two people—McAlevey and the union’s executive director—to negotiate a framework agreement for the timeline of the bargaining process. (In an effort to be transparent, the two leaders do call two workers to outline the deal and allow them to make some calls before accepting the schedule.) The campaign also risked McAlevey and Lawlor’s principle that 90 percent of workers should vote for a strike threat in order for it to be credible, as the vote was held without due notice and only over four days. McAlevey and Lawlor report that of the PASNAP nurses who voted, 90 percent moved to strike, but they do not mention how many people voted out of all 925 workers represented by the union. And while the book omits the terms of the Einstein contract, McAlevey and Lawlor disclose at least one tragic concession: in order to get the agreement, PASNAP signed a temporary agreement not to organize three new hospitals in the Einstein network, effectively depriving hundreds if not thousands of other nurses of the right to collective bargaining.

Despite these limitations, I found the PASNAP campaign remarkable in the nurses’ ability to keep marching past tough decisions. They applied the rules to win by selectively and at the right time. Indeed, case after case in the book demonstrates the need for improvisation, creativity, and the savvy use of luck. The nurses pushed Einstein to come to the bargaining table by threatening to picket the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after they learn that it will take place on the same day as Einstein’s deadline to appeal the recognition of the union. “What a gift,” the authors write.

In fact, Einstein nurses could count on another gift: favorable objective conditions. At the time of the campaign, Einstein was desperately trying to recruit more nurses, and a national nursing shortage helped to empower them. In their case, management proved willing to concede even before nurses set a strike deadline, but others haven’t been as lucky, as nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, can attest. Organizing with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, they saw a bitter fight, including a ten-month strike.

When workers’ resilience is being tested, making space for creativity and seizing lucky opportunities can go a long way, but in one of the book’s cases featuring an extremely intransigent employer, a crucial move by political leaders helps to close the deal. Teachers and other certified staff at Mercer County Special Services Educational and Therapeutic Association (MCSSETA) find their way into high-powered negotiations after field representatives from their parent union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), attend a training led by McAlevey and encourage the locals to open up negotiations to members. MCSSETA follows their advice: eighty-six members filled the first session at the school library, and further sessions had to be scheduled in the school gym with as many as 150 members attending.

But even with this early success, MCSSETA negotiators bargained for nearly two years and reached a deal only with luck and after straying from the rulebook. “NJEA president Marie Blistan made a call to . . . Democratic governor Phil Murphy,” McAlevey and Lawlor relate, and soon thereafter Blistan met with the county executive who appointed the school board. “A week later, MCSSETA members had the deal they needed.” Union members initially vetoed any closed sessions, but changed their minds after Blistan’s meeting. Behind closed doors, MCSSETA’s president gets a major concession on salary increases, which leads to a successful ratification vote involving around 100 of the union’s nearly 400 members. But the example doesn’t offer an analysis of what to do when participation hits a ceiling. When political allies don’t come through, and employers remain intransigent, how can workers keep the fight alive?

In their closing chapter, McAlevey and Lawlor acknowledge that their rules aren’t meant to be hard and fast; some degree of improvisation—judgment about when and how to apply the principles—is inevitable under varying conditions. “The twenty elements of high-participation negotiations function like key ingredients in a successful recipe,” they write: “the amounts might, in a pinch, vary or be substituted for something very similar, but the basic items and the steps do matter.” They stop short, however, of giving a systematic framework to discern under what objective conditions these tactics can be applied (or need to be abandoned)—and for making these decisions democratically.

This omission points to a subtle tension in the argument of Rules to Win By: the distinction between participation and worker empowerment. Workers should participate, the authors argue, by doing things like identifying “potential intersections between their own lives and relationships in the community and key actors and institutions in the power structure,” writing articles in article committees, running for a seat in large voluntary bargaining teams, and participating in polls about what to do in the bargaining room. One criticism of tactics in the broad catalog of McAlevey’s model has been that they serve a strategy predetermined by professional staff; the authors do not discuss how unions can develop more democratic ways of setting strategy and working through deep disagreement. According to Rules to Win By, “a debate or issue that is emerging among workers in the room can be quickly resolved” by caucusing—taking a formal break in negotiations. McAlevey and Lawlor don’t address the possibility that debate might not be resolved, especially not quickly.

Given the emphasis on quick resolutions, readers may draw the conclusion that serious dissent should be frowned upon for the sake of the win. Similarly, the authors write:

When workers who have low trust in their own organization—as many do in today’s typical do-nothing-or-do-too-little unions—are invited to take part in the very process at the heart of every union, they can quickly shift to having immense trust in and effective ownership of the organization. This can happen during one negotiation session, if not just one hour in a session, when the union goes out of its way to ensure that all workers understand the process and dynamics of negotiations. . . The old union saying that “The boss is the best organizer” comes to life when workers can witness, firsthand, management lawyers resolutely rejecting reasonable demands, leading skeptical workers to come to the conclusion that their active participation in a collective project is the only way to win changes that meet their pressing needs.

This sort of openness would go a long way to building trust, and it’s certainly a far cry from the closed-room, top-down practices that McAlevey and Lawlor reject. But understanding and witnessing the process—even taking part in research or planning activities that help negotiators and other leadership—is not the same as exercising agency over it.

Understanding and witnessing the process is not the same as exercising agency over it.

I have seen these tensions in my own organizing experience. I came into the labor movement in 2018 as a graduate student and rank-and-file organizer at Harvard University. At the time, student workers were fighting to set aside a contested 2016 vote over unionizing that was conducted under gross misconduct by the Harvard administration. The NLRB invalidated the results and ordered a new election, but Harvard appealed; it was not until January 2018 that we were guaranteed a second chance.

Worker initiative and situated knowledge came to the fore in seizing favorable conditions. As we headed to a new election, The Chronicle of Higher Education exposed decades of sexual harassment by Jorge Dominguez, a professor in Harvard’s government department. The lack of real recourse for harassment was already an issue motivating students to join the union effort and something we were organizing around. Even though university administrators moved with lighting speed to force Dominguez into retirement, something had changed: we had a real opportunity to build momentum on the heels of #MeToo. We had already made inroads organizing around Trump’s Muslim ban, and we pivoted to use this moment to grow our support even more. We ran a campaign centering immigrants and survivors of harassment and discrimination, and led by our international student and feminist caucuses, we won our union—the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU), a UAW local—in April.

Later that fall, as HGSU headed to its first contract negotiations, I was elected as a representative. Student across campus were excited and agitated, but when we brought up open bargaining, our UAW advisors told us that it would be a great way to put pressure on Harvard, but only if turnout was sufficiently high. While for McAlevey and Lawlor every stage of the negotiation process can be turned into a tactic for power building, our advisors appeared to consider openness optional, primarily of instrumental value. In the end, both arguments see participation as a means to power rather than a matter of principle.

In some contexts, worries over low turnout have become moot. In New York and California, UAW leaders are keen to open the doors of the bargaining room to all because they can count on workers, especially in higher education, to show up. Still, those who attend are often expected to act as spectators. When 48,000 workers at the University of California (McAlevey and Lawlor among them) ended the largest academic strike in history last year without winning any core demands, Michael Paul Berlin argued that despite practicing transparent, big, open negotiations (in the sense that rank and file were engaged as spectators), union leadership displayed a tendency to “manage, rather than further, the demands coming from rank-and-file workers.” The elected bargaining teams had initially championed the demand for a cost-of-living salary adjustment—the most energizing demand for the rank and file—but a narrow majority proved willing to give it up, and a significantly weaker contract was ratified when put to the whole union membership, even after a vigorous “no” campaign.

Deeper union democracy than Rules to Win By envisions—more space for debate and meaningful strategic input from the rank and file—might not always lead to outcomes that satisfy all workers, of course. But it is hard to see on what principled basis such opportunities should be ruled out. On the contrary, there are clear risks to denying them: it can reinforce the very anti-democratic tendencies that McAlevey and Lawlor rightfully decry. The principles in Rules to Win By don’t rule out hierarchical forms of “high participation” at the hands of undemocratic leadership. In the book’s paradigm, the role of some workers in negotiations is limited to introducing “efficiencies by enabling real-time fact-checking of management’s claims.” In the worst case, overly bureaucratic unions may weaponize weak forms of participation to give the illusion of greater democracy and worker empowerment. “It’s not too hard to imagine top-down unions trying to legitimize unpopular decisions by saying we had ‘open bargaining’ so we did everything right,” says Brandon Mancilla, reformer and the newly elected regional director in UAW’s Region 9A. “Open bargaining is not a spectator sport. We need to make sure that our contract fights open up possibilities for workers to be involved and take ownership over the campaign beyond watching bargaining.”

Perhaps the most entrenched idea labor has to unlearn is the presumption that union means unanimity.

Mancilla reflects labor’s new efforts to increase participation by democratizing union governance. From the Chicago Teachers’ Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators and the Union Power caucus of the United Teachers Union Los Angeles to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and UAW’s own Unite All Workers for Democracy, reform caucuses have installed new leadership and are working to make significant changes to culture and practice. Inspired by Kellogg and John Deere workers who voted down tentative agreements and later achieved transformative contracts, other UAW unions—not just at the University of California—have seen rank-and-file no-vote campaigns over the last two years. Meanwhile, UPS Teamsters have built an app to send out bargaining updates to all workers during ongoing contract negotiations, and they are inviting a number of rank-and-file workers into the bargaining room. All these developments—embodying the call for high participation in Rules to Win By—have emerged from rank-and-file militancy, and they point the way to building a more democratic culture of dissent and debate within unions themselves.

Perhaps the most entrenched idea labor has to unlearn is the presumption that union means unanimity. In a recent piece in Labor Notes, Helena Worthen and Joe Berry set out to dispel the myth that disagreement among workers necessarily weakens the union. “Far from sending a message to the boss that the union is divided and vulnerable,” they write, “a vote no campaign can be viewed as a sign of strength.” In their report from a strike at Rutgers in April earlier this year, Bryan Sacks (vice president of the adjuncts’ union) and Michael Beyea Reagan (a rank-and-file worker) wrote about decision-making near the end of negotiations. “A sizable minority within the union’s governing bodies believed the strike was suspended at a time when the unions retained power to press for greater gains,” they observe. “They called for a delay in signing the framework to further discuss the matter over the weekend.” Their call wasn’t heeded, and the strike still won impressive raises and groundbreaking job security provisions for adjunct faculty, but Sacks and Reagan raise reservations about whether this game-time decision was the right one, encouraging open debate about it.

This attitude has long been the exception in the labor movement. More often, the pressure is to reserve conflict and contestation for fights with management. For big, open, transparent negotiations to be a source of strength, a democratic culture and substantial rank-and-file input even in strategic decision-making are essential, and achieving them requires seeing conflict not as an obstacle to winning but rather a crucial form of worker agency and political education. In the hands of democratic union leaders, the advice of Rules to Win By can be empowering. But its message can also obscure anti-democratic tendencies to treat workers like mere means to an end rather than agents of their own struggle. We need a sequel to McAlevey and Lawlor’s important book that addresses these issues. Fortunately, its case studies are already being written by workers across the country.

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