You likely know that Rank & File Action is pushing for open bargaining in the upcoming contract struggle. A year ago we partnered with the PSC Graduate Center to hold an event on open bargaining featuring speakers from various unions who have practiced it, and two weeks ago the Bronx Action Committee hosted another event and discussion on what open bargaining would mean for the PSC. We have definitions and information on what open bargaining is on our website and have flyered for it at the PSC 50th Anniversary Picnic. We believe open bargaining would signal a seachange in how the PSC conducts its negotiations and how members perceive their own role in the union!

But what does the PSC leadership think? We have some answers, but we hope things will change. One of the four Principal Officers visited a recent chapter meeting and fielded a question about open bargaining; RAFA members took notes. Here are some of the points the officer in question made, and our initial response:

  1. “We have come up with a workable process that isn’t quite open bargaining but a form of open bargaining.” By this they mean that members will be invited into key sessions for particular viewpoints, a model that has been used by the PSC in the past. But these invitations have in the past come with a gag agreement which prevents members from reporting openly on the sessions afterwards. Since the bargaining team decides who gets to be there and how much they can disclose, this is not open bargaining. 
  2. “We have formed a Demand Development Committee that is pivoting to work with Campus Action Teams (CATs) on demands.” As far as we can tell, the Demand Development Committee is comprised solely of Executive Council members, and CAT teams are similarly limited in scope. At at least one major CUNY campus, the CAT hasn’t even met yet this year. There need to be clear paths for member involvement in formulating demands, rather than the “death by committee” approach. 
  3. “Open bargaining would be too unwieldy for a union of 30,000 members.” Yes, a bargaining session with thousands of members might be chaotic. But open bargaining is not a free-for-all and is premised on the notion that there is power in numbers. You can choose a maximum number of participants and have people sign up beforehand, rotating through different attendees for each session. The caucus structure means that members know to remain quiet during negotiations and debrief with the bargaining committee during breaks. There can be structure and limits to open bargaining. 
  4. “We would look weak if only five people showed up.” So, which is it? Are the POs worried about too many or too few people attending bargaining sessions? It is true that some unions practicing open bargaining have struggled to activate members as participants in the sessions. But this is all the more reason why we need to start building our member power now, and spread as much political education as possible. Members can help each other understand that they can have a meaningful role to play in their own contract negotiations, rather than believing their voices don’t matter or expecting others to fight on their behalf in a top-down structure. Who better to advocate for part-time CLTs than someone currently holding that role? This union is our union, not the leadership’s union, and open bargaining is a process that can begin today. 
  5. “We sometimes worry that the focus on open bargaining distracts from building power among the members.” (Yes, this is a direct quote). We at RAFA know that the whole point of open bargaining is building member power. If you are accustomed to showing up at pointless publicity events or filling out surveys whose results are never released, you’re not going to believe turning out to negotiations is worth your time. On the other hand, if we build a union culture that values and amplifies all voices and encourages active and horizontally balanced participation, open bargaining will become a natural outgrowth of the kind of vibrant union we’ve cultivated.  

Open bargaining does not happen in a vacuum, curtailing other approaches to building power. On the contrary, it is an umbrella term that encompasses many other actions and mobilizations as members see fit, while becoming increasingly activated and enraged by the betrayals and hypocrisy of CUNY executives. It is also not an all-or-nothing feature of negotiations, but rather a process (like strike readiness), a muscle we must flex and strengthen over time. Rather than shutting down dialogue by claiming that “the PSC already practices a form of open bargaining” (which we have heard asserted in various contexts) the Principal Offers should practice openness to more transparency and new forms of member engagement as we approach the upcoming round of contract negotiations. After all, more members involved would ultimately make these leaders’ taxing jobs easier!

See the recent RAFA Dispatch for more info about the many exciting initiatives RAFA has been engaged in, and contact rafa.cuny@gmail.com if you would like to get involved!