Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations

Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations

About this Report

Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations, by Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor, illustrates best practices for building the power to win in today’s challenging union climate.

The report features a series of case studies in collective bargaining during the four years under Trump. They cover four key employment sectors: teachers, nurses, hotel workers, and journalists. In each case, workers used high transparency and high participation approaches in contract campaigns to build worker power. Each victory points a path to raising workers’ expectations of what is possible to win at the negotiations table today.

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View a glossary of key terms used in this report.
View the author panel discussion with workers from the case studies
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How unions negotiate is a strategic choice. Negotiations between employers and unionized workers are mostly shrouded in secrecy. Seldom do union members experience the actual process of collective negotiations over issues that are crucial, urgent, and relevant to their own lives. The purpose of this report is to discuss how negotiations can be different—very different—from what has become the norm. Our hope is to start a robust conversation about collective bargaining: how it is practiced, how it can be improved, and how the practice and process of negotiations relate to power, union governance, and democracy. This report is for unionists, future unionists, policy makers, labor academics, and anyone else concerned about rebalancing power and battling inequality.

The typical collective-bargaining process in the United States involves a small committee of mid- to lower-level management and their lawyers negotiating with an equally small committee of workers who are selected to represent the majority. The members of these union committees are typically paid, and they negotiate during the hours they’d normally be clocked in and working. The lead negotiators for the union are either negotiation specialists within the union (this can be worker members or union staff) or, quite commonly, lawyers hired to lead the negotiations with a small committee. Most union committees are not elected, except in the sense that they involve elected union officials or position holders who, per the union’s constitution or bylaws, are ex-officio members of the negotiations team. The mechanics of collective bargaining are typically governed by ground rules legally negotiated by the parties. These rules often dictate confidentiality—gag rules—throughout negotiations.

The alternative, exemplified by recent case studies highlighted in this report, is a collective-negotiations process that invites, if not directly engages, the entire unionized workforce. In selecting our cases, we required radical transparency as the starting point for the negotiations process: this foundational practice can ultimately transform a union and lead to greater overall worker participation in the life of the organization. From the baseline of transparency, we then added other criteria and elements that enhance workers’ understanding of what it means to be unionized. We sought unions that hold elections for their negotiations’ teams. We looked for unions that have big bargaining teams versus small ones. We sought unions that practice open negotiations, by which we mean open to all workers covered by the collective-bargaining agreement. The seven sets of negotiations discussed in this report were conducted between 2016 and 2019, and involve five unions in which workers achieved breakthroughs of all sorts in their final contracts. These case studies show that even among a smaller set of unions practicing a quite different approach to the closed, top-down version of negotiations, variations exist.

Obviously, we are presenting only a glassful of examples in a sea of activities. Our cases represent a sliver of unions and union negotiations, and cover workers in the private and public sectors, in education, health care, hospitality, and journalism. The research for this report began before the COVID-19 pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd, and before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But the crises of the past year have made victories won by workers in these five unions—from a healthcare savings fund which provided extended coverage for laid-off hotel workers to greater job security and pay equity for journalists of color—even more vital. Our report’s examples and lessons are all the more urgent as workers, unionized or not, literally fight for their lives and battle their personal exhaustion as they collectively battle a billionaire class that cares not about the people producing the profits.


As stated in the opening line of the preface, how unions negotiate is a strategic choice.

Collective bargaining is a powerful policy tool, and key policies won by unions in negotiations have historically set the floor for subsequent local, state, and federal legislation on a wide range of issues, including anti-discrimination policy, sick leave, and wages. Labor laws have been badly skewed in favor of the employers since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which amended the 1935 National Labor Relations Act in ways outrageously favorable to the corporate class and against workers. In decades of debates about how to rebuild unions—about organizing unions versus servicing unions, about internal union democracy, and about top-down versus bottom-up unions—little has been written about the process of collective bargaining itself. Although Kate Bronfenbrenner’s 1990s groundbreaking research on unionization did discuss steps workers can take to improve their chances of winning a first contract, there’s scant contemporary research on how unions conduct negotiations—and on how they can do it better.

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Jane McAlevey

Senior Policy Fellow


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