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Keys to successful collective bargaining

New York Teacher

When the UFT negotiated its 2018 contract with the city Department of Education, it followed the strategy used by the Federation of Nurses/UFT, which I lead, because of our past success at the bargaining table.

The workforce can have a voice, not only in hospitals or schools, but in contract negotiations as well.

In our experience, successful collective bargaining begins with and is dependent upon identifying — along with our members — the goals we want to achieve, so we can strategically work toward them. So I spend a lot of time collecting information, often through member surveys. It’s an opportunity to know what’s on members’ minds; an opportunity to educate, because sometimes members ask for things we already have; and an opportunity to prioritize based on their workplace experience.

Then we at the Federation of Nurses/UFT look at the current contract to identify the areas where we’ve been successful and had good work outcomes and other areas where we feel we need change.

We also work hard to investigate and determine best practices in the workplace. And we look at what other labor groups have done. By doing research, we can model good examples of problem-solving.

Bargaining always has an economic component: How has the cost of living changed? What is the cost of our pension and health benefits? How do we fund them? How do we increase compensation? To negotiate on these topics, we also need to know the demographics of those we’re bargaining for. So we ask the employer for data. How many members have five years of service? How many have 10 years? That information allows us to effectively target changes that will benefit the current workforce.

Having learned to calculate in advance the total cost of something, we then cost out everything we are seeking.

We arrive at the bargaining table armed with all that information and with members who sit with our bargaining team. We face the employer, who often doesn’t know the reality of the workday or have in-depth knowledge of work rules and how they affect our work. Because we know the job, we can shape the employer’s thinking about rules that don’t make sense, and we can explain how we can be most effective and urge changes accordingly.

While the common goal is to achieve health, we need and advocate for the ability to respond to the needs of the individual patient. For example, nurses communicate differently with an English-speaking college graduate than with a patient who speaks a different language, has different beliefs and has a different level of education. Often we need more time at one patient’s bedside than another’s; we may have to explain cancer or diabetes to a patient who never studied biology. And we get a small window to teach people how to help themselves.

We need the tools to succeed, such as appropriate staffing levels. If you don’t have enough nurses, you can’t provide the proper care. The best surgeon can’t save you if you get a post-operative infection or if you can’t get out of bed because there’s no one to help.

In the end, we make hard choices at the bargaining table to protect our current benefits and to increase or add to them. Hospital management always wants to save money, and we do, too, but not at the expense of patient care. We get things in writing because, ultimately, you don’t have anything if it’s not in the contract.

Our voice is strong because the principles we champion are unimpeachable: Everyone deserves the opportunity to get better, to understand their illness and to have a say in their plan of care.