How Open Bargaining—and Not Letting Management Set the Ground Rules—Led to a Union Victory

How Open Bargaining—and Not Letting Management Set the Ground Rules—Led to a Union Victory

How Open Bargaining—and Not Letting Management Set the Ground Rules—Led to a Union Victory

In 2017, Kentucky became the most recent “right-to-work” state in the US. Which makes the recent victory by the Amalgamated Transit Union all the more significant.


Before the recent mass shootings, Louisville, Ky., was best known for bourbon, baseball bats, and horse racing. The races can sometimes surprise you. Just last year, an unknown horse named Rich Strike—with the second-longest odds against him in the Kentucky Derby’s entire 147-year history—finished ahead of an elite field. In another upset, in this right-to-work state where only 7.9 percent of the workforce are covered by union contracts, the members of Local 1447 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) beat back racist divide-and-conquer proposals by management last November to win a great contract. But their victory relied on method—not luck.

“I had just been elected the year before the negotiations started,” Lillian Brents, the 47-year-old president of the local, tells The Nation. “Everything was a lot of firsts for us, including the approach called ‘open negotiations.’ We welcomed all members to come to hear for themselves what management was saying.”

Brents’s father was an active union member—and a Marine. “You don’t make excuses—you make adjustments,” she remembers him saying. “I was raised with three brothers, and I learned to have a can-do attitude. I don’t take no for an answer.” Even before the start of negotiations, the Transit Authority of the River City (TARC) sent a proposal for ground rules, which included a gag order prohibiting the union’s negotiations committee from discussing the talks with anyone not on the committee.

“I was so taken aback,” Brents says. “I said no to the ground rules. And no ground rules at all.” As the second woman president of a local in the union’s history—and the first in more than 20 years—she was determined for all of its members to experience the negotiations. The timing of her election was perfect: The national leadership was preparing for its 60th annual convention, and the agenda included a resolution to make open negotiations the official policy of the entire ATU. “I wanted help, and when I called my [national] union’s offices, they helped me understand how I could open the negotiations to all members,” she says.

Passed unanimously at the convention, “Resolution X, Strengthening Collective Bargaining and Contract Campaigns” is a clear embrace of open negotiations. It states, “The ATU encourages local unions to expand the use of open and transparent collective bargaining techniques…to mobilize a majority of the membership in campaign activities…and establish special defense and strike funds to improve their leverage in collective bargaining.” Brents was already moving full steam ahead with this approach. Because she had refused management’s ground rules, she was free to rally the membership against management’s divisive, three-tiered tiered wage proposal—which would have given the smallest group of mostly white workers (the engineers) a 3 percent raise, the next-largest group (the bus drivers, mostly Black women, like Brents) a 2 percent raise, and the largest group (made up largely of Black men, including cleaners and non-maintenance workers) a 1 percent raise. When management, after upping the 2 percent to 2.5 percent, said this was its last, best, and final offer, Brents led the workers to vote the proposal down resoundingly. “Management was showing different treatment to different workers, but we are one union,” she says. “When we forced them back to negotiations, keeping our momentum up throughout, we won a two-year contract with a 6 percent raise across the board for all workers in year one and a 4 percent raise in year two. It was hard. But we are never going back to closed-door negotiations, because this new way worked.”

The segregated wage proposal wasn’t the first time that management revealed its racial bias. In an e-mail to union leadership, it had proposed holding talks at the local zoo, highlighting the view the 90 percent Black workforce could have of the orangutan enclosure. The contract victory also included the adoption of Juneteenth as a holiday, increases for necessities such as uniforms and tools, and more.

“Why wouldn’t we enable rank-and-file union members to be part of their negotiations?” asks ATU International president John Costa. “Each member can contribute uniquely and meaningfully because they understand the job better than anyone, and they can advocate for their passengers and riders. Open bargaining is not just democratic but produces the best and strongest contracts.” Brents firmly believes this new approach of encouraging all the members to attend and watch management’s shenanigans is what helped them build solidarity and achieve big wins.

Brents has been sharing her local’s all-in approach with two other Louisville-based unions that have big negotiations coming up this year: a Teamsters UPS local and a United Auto Workers local. In her own union, she hardly had to do any education about the contract during the ratification process; most workers already knew everything that was in it because they had taken part in the negotiations. “We’ve started something here, and I’m very proud of it,” Brents says. “I’m proud of my international union supporting me and giving me the information, the knowledge, and the experience to do so. History has a way of repeating itself: The labor movement­’s bigger than myself. It’s escalating and it’s making a comeback.”

With the Writers Guild of America currently balloting members on a possible strike against film and television studios and negotiations upcoming for two national unions with new reform leadership—the Teamsters and the UAW—all unions can learn from the ATU’s success. Open negotiations start with radical transparency—and then actively engaging all workers to directly participate. Every legacy union has the chance to use contract talks to rebuild into a fighting force—the kind American workers are desperate for. A union local led by a Black woman bus driver in the heart of Mitch McConnell country made history. We all need more negotiations like this.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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