Open Bargaining- A way to engage and empower your local at the table and beyond

By Jennifer Larsen and Alex DeVicaris

After more than 50 years of collective bargaining in New Jersey, the landscape has changed but the central goals remain the same: to improve the working conditions and economic security of our members. As the goals remain the same, so do the challenges: disengaged members, shrinking budgets, hostile boards of education, and so forth.

As UniServ field representatives, one of our roles is to assist local associations in settling and defending the best contracts possible. We believe despite all the other issues swirling around, bargaining at its core is about power. When one side possesses more power, it is able to impose its will upon the other side. When the two sides are equal, they can develop mutual respect and produce a fair and equitable contract for all. One of our long-term goals in bargaining is to ensure the local association is on equal footing with the board of education.

So where does the power come from? The board gets its power from the political process and by controlling the purse strings. Our power comes from our people. Every organizing campaign, every successful job action, every successful contract fight is a direct result of getting members engaged in support of the local association. When we get our members involved, we can flex our collective muscle in ways the board can’t match.

How we engage members is the big question. Jane McAlevey, a union organizer, scholar, writer, and the keynote speaker at the 2017 NJEA Jim George Collective Bargaining Summit called for more openness and greater transparency in bargaining as a way to engage members. Veteran UniServ Field Representative Harry Zakarian has long advocated sharing more information in bargaining as a way to build member engagement. These ideas make sense because bargaining is the one issue that affects every single member in the local, so it’s a natural place to start.

Open bargaining is quite simply bringing the membership into the bargaining process. As easy as that idea sounds, a progression needs to be followed to lay the groundwork for success.

The process begins with an open and honest evaluation of the local association with the aim of identifying where along the open bargaining continuum this local could conceivably go. Specifically, we look at what has happened in bargaining in the past regarding member support, the dynamic with the board, and a willingness of the local leadership to do things a little differently. We also determine what internal issues might exist within the local. Open bargaining is not for every local, but many of the steps along the way to open bargaining can be used to improve your success at the table.

Once the field rep and local leadership have assessed the local, the next step is to meet with and train the local bargaining team, executive committee, building reps and member engagement team. The member engagement team replaces the more traditional action team, which is usually formed well into the bargaining process. The member engagement team, by contrast, is formed at the beginning of the bargaining process because in open bargaining, members engage in some concerted actions right away.

The member engagement team is trained on building mapping and targeted conversations. They then divide up the local so each and every member has someone from this group who will be their contact for bargaining. The goal of this broad group is to have its finger on the pulse of the membership. Questions and concerns flow from the members to the local association leadership and information and answers flow back to the members.

Instead of a paper survey, this member engagement team has conversations with every member to identify the positive and negative aspects of the current contract. This way the bargaining team knows from the membership which parts of the contract must be preserved and those parts for which changes must be sought. This information is then used to develop specific proposals.

The benefit of these conversations is that, unlike a paper survey, we get input from every member while we develop relationships with all members. This is the first step to the member becoming invested in the bargaining process.

Keith Whitaker, the chief negotiator for MCSSETA, backed by his members at a bargaining session.

Once the areas of the contract in need of change are identified, the local along with its field rep hosts a World Café, which is a structured conversational process with a flexible format for hosting a large group dialogue. In the days and weeks leading up to the World Café, one-on-one conversations with local association members encouraging them to attend are vital. In those conversations, local association reps explain that the World Café is another opportunity for members to give input into negotiation proposals. From the World Café, the negotiations team comes out with its research completed, internal organizing messages, rationale for the board, and external messages for the community before team members have even gone to the table. They also earn buy-in from the membership.

“I’ve never seen our members more engaged in their local association,” former Watchung Borough Education Association President Kristen Heller said of the World Café. “These are now THEIR proposals.”

Throughout the next several weeks, the member engagement team works on messages and facts.  The team also plans events to keep the membership engaged in the process. Such messages include positive language in their contract facts around bargaining, and invitations to specific workshops based upon the conversations with the members (e.g., salary guide workshop, the bargaining process, etc.). Locals that have followed these steps have reported a huge increase in attendance at these workshops.

Open bargaining is quite simply bringing the membership into the bargaining process.

Once proposals are finalized and shared with the board, a general membership meeting is held to share the board’s proposals and association’s proposals. Depending on the size of the local, multiple meetings might be needed. This is a departure from the standard practice for many locals. It is our philosophy that members deserve to be informed of the proposals because it is their contract, and it affects their lives.

Engaging members is about being transparent in order to gain their support for the fight ahead. Sharing of the proposals also shows the membership that the issues they spoke about and that matter to them made it into the proposal. If an issue has not made it into the proposal, the conversation about why it’s not there can be had at the beginning of the bargaining process rather than at ratification.

It also helps to share the board’s initial proposals because by the end of the process the membership can see how far you have moved the board toward a good settlement. Robbinsville Education Association President Debi Bella decided to share the proposals from the last round of bargaining and was shocked by the results.

“The membership was furious and ready for action,” said Bella. “I was called into the superintendent’s office the next day. She said had they known we were going to share the proposals they would have put different ones on the table.”

Many of the locals we work with choose to use expanded teams—as many as 15 to 25 members—from this point forward. These teams represent a cross section of the membership and ensure each constituent is heard from during caucuses, which are the meetings a negotiations team holds apart from the board team during a bargaining session. Because of the emphasis on openness and transparency, the bargaining team members are confident that they are making informed and strategic decisions based on where the membership truly stands. The team can also go back and have conversations with members in real time when proposals are modified or dropped. This practice avoids rumors, surprises and anger at ratification because the membership already knows what is going on. These locals go into ratification meetings already knowing what the vote is going to be.

Recently, three locals, the High Bridge Education Association, the Mercer County Special Services Educational and

Therapeutic Association, and the Watchung Hills Education Association have taken the concept of being open and transparent to the next level by engaging in what we consider to be full-on open bargaining; the entire membership is invited to attend bargaining sessions with the board and participate in the process. You can read a brief synopsis of their stories below.

High Bridge Education Association – The Mouse that Roared

The High Bridge Education Association (HBEA) is a 80-member local in a small town. It is a two-school K to 8 district. For years, the board has been controlled by one anti-tax, anti-public education, anti-public-school-employee member. This person delayed and dominated the bargaining process and did everything in his power to break the union. It wasn’t uncommon for him to propose reducing support staff salaries to below minimum wage, among other outrageous schemes. It was time for a change.

To restore the balance of power, the NJEA UniServ field rep and the local leadership decided to pursue open bargaining and bring the membership into the process. After following the steps outlined earlier in this article and training the membership on open bargaining, HBEA was ready to go.

At the first meeting there were five additional members beyond the bargaining team. The board member was up to his usual tricks. Those members went back and shared what they saw, and at the next meeting there were 15 additional members in attendance. At this point the board bargaining team was too intimidated to enter the room. When they were finally persuaded to return to the table, the behavior of the board member in question was neutralized, and he changed his demeanor. HBEA continued open bargaining through the entire negotiations process, which included fact-finding and achieved one of its highest settlements ever.

If you are a local association officer and think this direction could be right for your local, we suggest you contact your UniServ field rep to discuss the process in detail.

Mercer County Special Services Educational and Therapeutic Association – A Local United

The Mercer County Special Services Educational and Therapeutic Association’s (MCSSETA) last round of bargaining was difficult to say the least. By the time an agreement was reached the membership was so burned out that fewer than 30 members of the 400-member local came to the preratification information session. Some members had become disillusioned and distrustful of the association. The newly elected president, Leah Durestanti, decided it was time for a change.

Leah along with her chief negotiators, Keith Whitaker and Maureen Welsh, made the decision to move toward open bargaining and what a decision that was! The local that couldn’t get more than 30 in attendance at a ratification meeting now has consistently over 100 members in attendance at each bargaining session. While they are not yet settled, the local reports the board has made several small-and medium-sized concessions faster than they ever have with nothing being sacrificed by the association. Job action participation has been greater than it has been in 20 years.

These results didn’t happen by accident, the local leadership and field rep put the time and effort into following the above steps and making their members part of the process.

The Watchung Hills Regional EA negotiations team (dressed in yellow) begins its first bargaining session with the board of education, with over 80 WHREA members in attendance.

Watchung Hills Education Association – Taking Back the Power

Watchung Hills Education Association (WHEA) is a local that has done well over the years. WHEA has a good salary guide, good benefits and decent working conditions. However, the district superintendent and board believe that they can walk all over members and the contract whenever they want. The last straw came when the board and superintendent unilaterally imposed an August start date for staff. The local leadership decided enough was enough. They needed to take back the power.

The NJEA UniServ field rep trained the local on open bargaining and set up WHEA’s first meeting with the board. It did not go well. The board and its attorney were belligerent and condescending. They refused to enter the room and threatened to call the fire marshal if some of the WHEA team did not leave. In response, the team filled the hallway and watched the process from the door.

For the next meeting, the board threatened to bring the press and members of the community into the process, but the members did not back down. They told the board to “bring it on,” but if the people invited by the board were not caucusing with the board team, the association would file unfair labor practice charges. The stage was set for a showdown.

The day of the meeting the board president contacted WHEA leaders and attempted to persuade them that the field rep was not acting in their best interests. This lead to the association to threaten an additional unfair labor practice charge.

When the meeting finally began,  the board was confronted with over 50 WHEA members in attendance. The board backed down, pulling all of its proposals off the table and offered an above average settlement to put this round of bargaining behind them. The association had won back its power and is now using that power to move the board to even higher numbers.

A great deal of detailed planning and work goes into making open bargaining successful.

Open bargaining requires planning and training

The information and stories above are just a brief overview of what can be accomplished by bringing the membership into the bargaining process. A great deal of detailed planning and work goes into making open bargaining successful, and many locals use some or all of the strategies shared.

One of the most enduring legacies of undertaking this approach is that the effects continue long after the bargaining process ends. The locals that have concluded their contract negotiations continue using their member engagement teams and enhanced communication to keep their membership informed and engaged. Many are already preparing for the next round of bargaining and are well ahead of where they were the last time.

If you are a local association officer and you think this direction could be right for your local, we suggest you contact your UniServ field rep to discuss the process in detail. 

Jennifer Larsen and Alex DeVicaris are NJEA UniServ field representatives primarily serving members and local associations in Mercer County. Larsen can be reached at DeVicaris can be reached at

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