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How to Open Bargaining, Louisville-Style

We have heard it said time and again over the last two decades, “unprecedented times require unprecedented measures.” When bosses say it, that phrase often means they are about to use a crisis as cover to make things worse for workers, to cut our wages, roll back benefits, or eliminate a pension. 

But what does it mean when workers say it, when we, as a union, decide that the challenges we face are so extraordinary that the strategy to overcome them must be equally so?


Gauntlet of Crises 

That’s what the 440 workers at the Transit Authority of River City (TARC) in Louisville, Kentucky, are thinking. Members of our Local 1447, they like so many ATU Locals, have run a gauntlet of crises over the last two years: the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, civil unrest, and rising inflation. Rather than dig in and hope the worst passes over, they are on the move, taking steps their Local has never taken before to win what’s rightfully theirs.

Local President Lillian Brents is seeking big gains for her members in their next contract, including wage increases and the restoration of the cost-of-living adjustment. At the same time, Brents sees TARC management stalling, hoping to let the calendar do the heavy lifting and push negotiations back until a recession hits. The company agreed to meet for bargaining only six times between June, July, and August, despite Brents requesting dates as far back as March 2022. In the meantime, management was constantly abusing a management rights clause to make random, unilateral changes to work, ignoring the current contract daily. 


Open Bargaining 

Brents believed that to push TARC to the table, to roll back its abuses, and to win what our members actually deserve, she would have to do things differently. Contract negotiations have historically been closed to 1447 members, but the Local decided to embrace open bargaining as part of a contract campaign. Open bargaining is a method of negotiating that brings the members into the room as observers to see how collective bargaining works in real time. For members who can’t attend, union leadership writes timely bargaining updates that are printed and distributed by volunteers to their co-workers in the garage and shop. Open bargaining builds trust, educates members on the process, and shows just how vicious the boss can be.

Working with the International, the Local assembled an organizing committee made up of workers. The committee started their work by engaging members in systematic, one-on-one conversations and surveying them about what they want to see in their next contract. 


Member’s Petition Action 

From the survey, they nailed down eight fairness-and-safety-related demands and built a petition around them. Again, the volunteer organizing committee hit the break rooms and shop floor to talk to their co-workers one-on-one. In just two weeks’ time, 74%, a super majority, of the bargaining unit had signed the petition. They turned that petition into a banner that showed every worker’s signature and brought it with them to present to the company on day one of negotiations.

The week leading up to the first session, the organizing committee began systematically contacting members who would be off the days of negotiations. Through diligent, systematic list work, they mobilized 5% of the unit to attend the first round of negotiations. That’s more than a dozen members coming in on their own free time, during daylight hours, on a weekday, to support the union. The next day? Another dozen members showed up.  To date, more than 50 members have volunteered their time to join their bargaining committee, and the number keeps growing.


Negotiations Begin 

The first day of negotiations started with Brents, the Executive Board, and the organizing committee getting to negotiations early to set up the room and show ATU 1447 has power – hanging up the banner, having stickers, buttons, and masks ready for members who attended. As management sat down, they had to look into the eyes of more than a dozen members who would be affected directly by management’s proposals. And hanging from the table in front of the union, management saw a banner with hundreds of signatures representing the workers on the job that day who couldn’t attend. TARC knew Local 1447 was ready to fight. 

Since then, TARC has had to face a room full of members united behind 1447’s bargaining committee. Each session, TARC leaves disappointed that the union won’t adopt their anti-worker concessions. There’s no doubt that Local 1447 will eventually prevail because our Local involved its members from the very beginning, building trust and inviting participation. Members responded, stepping up in droves to show their support for the Local’s proposals. When members signaled they were ready for more action, leadership met them with a strategy to escalate and take the campaign public. 

As this article goes to print, more than 30% of the unit has sent a digital letter directly to Louisville elected officials who oversee TARC,  and the union has launched a series of informational pickets to take their case directly to the public and TARC riders.