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How to Open Bargain with a Bang – the Launch of Local 1722-Kelowna, BC, Contract Campaign

The energy in the bargaining room was thick with tension. Three stunned looking First Transit executives and an Albertan lawyer sat on one side of the table. 40 transit workers stood silently behind their elected representatives on the other. “This is not how things are done! You can’t bargain with 240 people!” the executive exclaimed. 

“Why not?” replied Local 1722-Kelowna, BC, President Al Peressini. “We have nothing to hide.” 

That brief exchange tells the whole story of open bargaining. It’s not a new story because it finds its roots in 100-year-old trade union history, but it may feel new to some ATU Locals because the First Transit boss was right. As the doors creak open around bargaining rooms around the globe and the stories of negotiations weave in and out of the break rooms, unionists build trust, transparency, and an informed, strike-ready majority for the benefit of us all. As the story in Kelowna will demonstrate, our Union has an opportunity to adopt open bargaining as a path toward building power at the table and beyond. 


Rank-and-File Members at the Table

The concept of open bargaining is simple: you bring any and all rank-and-file members and even sometimes external members of the community to sit at the bargaining table. Other tables have hosted pastors and even pro-union celebrities, like Danny Glover. Nothing is kept secret. No confidentiality or black-out agreements are signed. The boss must be careful. Say the wrong thing, take any worker’s wellbeing for granted and the whole membership will know. Their ability to spread misinformation or spin anti-union narratives about the negotiations is eradicated because the membership is there to witness what is happening with their own eyes. It’s very hard to drive wedges between a bargaining committee and its members when the committee is members. 

It sounds great, right? Yet, at first, everyone was a bit skeptical. Without the safety of privacy, what if we can’t get a deal? Will it be chaotic to manage so many people in a room? What if our Union has to make some difficult decisions towards the end? What if those choices are better for some members than others? Well, the fact is that workers are smart and savvy. They will learn about those difficult moments eventually, no matter what. But if they see our committee working hard, pushing for what matters along the path - we will be better able to understand and accept what is happening for the greater good of our Union. The work of sharing the burden of bargaining inherently builds solidarity in our ranks. We know this model works because it has for thousands of contracts.

Sooner than expected, the 1722 Executive Board was convinced, and before they knew it, the first day of bargaining was upon them. No one predicted how perfectly the drama would play out. 


A Solidarity Demonstration

The Local’s organizing committee decided to stage a solidarity demonstration in the hotel where the bargaining was to take place. Flyers were circulated the day before. But the Kelowna garage is small and overcrowded and the boss caught wind of the plans. At around 9pm the night before, the boss texted President Peressini to say they were unilaterally delaying barraging for two hours. Fine. Our Local pivoted. They called and texted as many members as possible to beg that folks come out two hours later. 

Then the boss was an hour late for their own delayed start time. This agitated the members even more. If there is one thing an operator is not allowed to be, it’s late. When they finally came downstairs to the bargaining room, our members formed a quiet and respectful gauntlet that the executives had to walk through in order to get to the room. They looked stunned and angry. Our members were prepared. They looked management in the eyes and said: “Good morning.” When 40 transit workers holding “ATU Proud” signs followed them into the room, the executives’ faces went red. They threw a three-minute temper tantrum. Words were exchanged, and then they got up and left, unwilling to negotiate in front of the people whose futures were at stake. 

About six hours later, the boss’s lawyer came down with a black-out agreement that they wanted our Union to sign. Our Union gave an unequivocal: no, we’re not signing that. This is happening. And that was the end of the day. 

The next morning our members showed up again, and the same scene took place: Signs and gauntlets- respectful: “Good morning!” to the boss. 

Once seated, First Transit restated their objection to open bargaining, threatening our Union: “If you can talk about what happens at the table, then so can we!” Our team reiterated that it didn’t worry them that the membership should hear about what was happening in their own contract negotiations. And then that was it. Bargaining began. 


A Win

This was a win. Before a single item in the package was discussed, our Union had forged a win. We had shown the boss that we were united behind our table. That we were educated and aware of the issues that would be discussed there. That we could mobilize and that we were not afraid to look them in the eye. And we won the right to bargain openly in spite of their staunch opposition. First Transit was duly intimidated, and Local 1722 felt their power, all before bargaining had even begun. 

It’s a beautiful parable of what’s possible when you organize and agitate well in advance instead of at the eleventh hour. It’s a lesson on trusting the stories of our labour foremothers and fathers. It’s a story of how we can work to win.