Lessons for Politics from Open Bargaining in the Labor Movement

In legislative fights, as in union negotiations, closed-door negotiations are the status quo but often stand in the way of building independent working-class power. What can socialists in office learn from militant unionists’ strategy of open bargaining?


What does it mean for socialists in office to act as “organizers first, and legislators second“? We expect socialists to walk picket lines with striking workers and build campaigns alongside working-class community members. But socialists in office also have a unique opportunity to use their bully pulpit and the legislative process to rally workers around an “us versus them” fight against the capitalist class and their politicians. 

This kind of class-struggle approach flies in the face of the “common sense” political logic that focuses on cultivating goodwill with other politicians and keeping negotiations behind closed doors. A more traditional “insider” approach may extract a reform here or a committee seat there, but it squanders the immense opportunities offered by occupying public office, stunting the central project of building working-class organization and consciousness.

Over the past few years, DSA has elected politicians to nearly all levels of government. They have often been great tribunes for socialist politics and class struggle. But at other times they seem to understand politics as a game of personal relationships with other electeds. In a recent interview, AOC admitted that the Squad purposely chooses to negotiate with Democratic leadership behind closed doors rather than in public in order to “not empower the Republicans” — in other words, to save face for the Democratic Party. 

Negotiations and fights where socialists and progressives are up against the establishment happen regularly, usually alongside the threat of reprisal from the establishment for not going along with the program. This happened last year in New York, when DSA’s representatives chose not to endorse insurgent challengers as a bloc after being told by Democratic leadership that, if they did, important bills like good cause eviction and universal childcare would be killed. 

Instead of revealing that capitalist politicians were holding the priorities of working-class New Yorkers hostage to disadvantage another working-class candidate from unseating a capitalist incumbent, socialist electeds succumbed to the pressure. Of course, their bills didn’t pass anyway.

These negotiations can and should be public. We can look to the labor movement for inspiration. Socialists and rank-and-file activists have long advocated open bargaining during contract negotiations: every worker is invited to watch and oversee the bargaining process, giving them ownership over their own fight that builds the power needed to win. Socialists in office should learn from this militant practice and adopt an “open bargaining” approach to legislating to force these fights into the public.

Why Does Open Bargaining Work in Unions?

The traditional, closed-door bargaining approach used by most unions closely resembles the insider approach in politics. When it’s time to negotiate a contract, union representatives (often but not always elected by members) disappear into negotiations and often don’t emerge again with any update for members until a tentative agreement has been reached. Besides its potential to conceal all sorts of corruption, closed bargaining keeps most members disengaged and disempowered in negotiations and preserves the balance of power between labor and capital instead of challenging it. Even union representatives with the best intentions are no match for corporate lawyers trained to indoctrinate the union’s bargaining team to the boss’s logic. Labor’s power doesn’t come from legal argumentation or moral persuasion, but from high levels of organization and mass disruption.

Open bargaining, on the other hand, seizes opportunities for workers to win more and transform their consciousness by confronting management as a collective. Allowing workers to watch the negotiation process bridges the information gap between the rank and file and the bargaining team so that workers can keep a close eye on their negotiators. This transparency means the boss is forced to reckon with their entire workforce — a constant reminder that, as the chant goes, “if we don’t get it,” we can “shut it down.” 

Watching management say “no” to perfectly reasonable demands that would improve working conditions is agitational, and these sentiments can be channeled directly into collective action. Jane McAlevey’s 2021 report shows that open bargaining has increased participation in many unions and paved the way for contract wins, membership growth, and new organizing drives. When workers go into battle against their bosses together, they begin to realize themselves as — indeed to act as — a class fit to rule. 

Open bargaining has been a common demand of recent union reform movements, from teachers and other public-sector workers to private-sector student workers. Workers who advocate open bargaining have come into conflict not only with their employers, but also with the current of business unionism that has dominated most unions in the U.S. for decades. Ellen David Friedman attributes this resistance from union bureaucrats to “the rise of neoliberal organizational principles” characterized by “rule by experts, inflated executive salaries, limits on internal democracy, centralization of decision-making, and intolerance of dissent.” Union staff have historically weaponized expertise against workers who demand a say in the bargaining process, arguing that workers would end up with worse deals because they’re unable to skillfully negotiate with management. 

But bargaining with your employer is no game of experts that can only be won with a wink, a nod, and a “creative solution.” It’s a struggle over material conditions that only shifts when workers organize to challenge management’s power and profits. In reality, the highly bureaucratized layer of union staff and leadership often collaborates with management behind closed doors to retain its material interests, granting concessions on workers’ behalf in exchange for their piece of the pie. Open bargaining challenges this practice by letting workers decide how long to hold the line. 

Putting Working People at the Helm

For socialists in the labor movement, the ultimate goal of bargaining isn’t just winning a better contract but rather building organization and consciousness among workers to ultimately overthrow capitalism. In the same way, we don’t consider the ultimate goal of elections to be winning piecemeal reforms through deals made by socialists in office, but to build the working class up for struggle. While we hope to win better contracts and reforms and to democratize both unions and the state on our way to surpassing capitalism, it is the process of waging these fights through independent, democratic, and oppositional struggle that builds working-class power for the long haul.

Today, just like at most bargaining tables, the vast majority of what happens in politics is behind closed doors, obscured from everyday people. While we can observe the results of the legislative process, we rarely ever see how those results came to be — what was said, what was promised, and what was threatened. This opacity is intentional. The functions of government are purposefully reserved for those in the room, disempowering the vast majority of Americans who aren’t politicians and their staffs, lobbyists and corporate donors, or technocratic experts.

Mike Parker argued that “democracy is about people having power over things that matter.” Having power over things that matter requires actually knowing what exactly is happening in government — the types of calculations going into political decisions and who is saying and doing what. When politicians keep these inner workings secret, they signal to workers that politics is the domain of politicians and experts, their own role reduced to supporting one set of politicians and experts or another. As part of a strategy whose end goal is to put the working class in command of politics, sharing this kind of insider knowledge allows us to collectively strategize about how our movement should act in the state. 

Building a powerful working-class movement requires making workers think and feel that politics is not just reserved for politicians but that they themselves have every right to strategize about and make political decisions and calculations. If our vision of socialism is one of true working-class democracy, we have to embrace the premise that “every cook can govern.” Class-struggle politicians therefore must also center this idea of socialism from below in their day-to-day activities.

Socialists in Office Can Do Open Bargaining Too

Just like the workplace, the state is a terrain on which workers can struggle against capitalists to improve their lives and build lasting power. In this context, socialist electeds are analogous to a bargaining team, representing the interests of workers in a battle against those of capital. 

However, unlike most union negotiations, political struggle can unite workers across workplaces and job types, around a political program that addresses capitalism’s injustices and crises and promotes larger-scale social transformation. And any democratic socialist transformation of society will likely have to pass through winning a majority for such a program at the ballot box.

But getting there will require that our socialists in office take an open bargaining approach, openly agitating for a socialist program and bringing negotiations with capitalists into the public eye. When AOC saves face for the Democratic Party by keeping negotiations private, she’s effectively denying working-class people the opportunity to clearly identify their enemies, allies, and that the way to improve their lives is through their own grassroots action as part of a project fundamentally in opposition to the capitalists. 

This is one of the reasons why an independent party, ballot line, and disciplined confrontation in legislatures are so important to building working-class power. In this way, our “bargaining team” can be accountable to a working-class movement, clearly demonstrate the oppositional character of our demands to capitalist politicians and parties, and raise the flag of independent organization, inviting workers to join in the fight rather than remain on the sidelines.

In a democratic union, actions at the bargaining table are subordinate to direction by the rank and file. Negotiations take place out in the open, so it’s rank-and-file participation and democratic deliberation that decide the subsequent course of action. This counteracts the conservatizing pressures faced at the bargaining table, prevents concessions and quid pro quos by a committee of experts, and clearly reveals the underlying conflict between bosses and workers. An open bargaining approach to our legislative work would similarly counteract conservatizing pressures faced in the halls of government by not relying solely on socialist politicians’ personal fortitude to remain true to the movement.

There are a million little decisions that electeds have to make, and we can’t expect full-membership discussion and referenda on all of them. But there are ways that our electeds can more clearly and publicly draw this “us versus them” line when relating to capitalist politicians and subordinate their tactical decision-making to the mass movement. In practice, we are making strides toward this, for example, with NYC-DSA’s Socialists in Office committee. More generally, however, this will require a constant orientation toward building working-class consciousness and organization rather than toward winning reforms on behalf of workers without their participation. 

Seeing Strides Toward Transparency, Setting Our Sights On Democracy

Bernie Sanders’ “organizer-in-chief” philosophy as mayor of Burlington, which he put into practice when he rallied the city against its capital-dominated city council, is a great example of this open bargaining approach. As the lone socialist in city government against an establishment city council, he considered his task to be “taking the job out of City Hall and into the streets where the people were.” This meant looking beyond the political establishment to build support for his program, and instead using his office to build a movement that instituted what he describes as “parallel city government.” Organizing outside the political establishment paid off electorally too: by the next cycle, Bernie’s alternative program and grassroots organization had built support sufficient to both win reelection and gain genuine allies on the city council.

Kshama Sawant’s fight against the repeal of the Amazon Tax also demonstrates this kind of open bargaining orientation. In 2017, after the Amazon Tax was passed and Amazon retaliated against Seattle city government by initiating its search for a second headquarters, the vast majority of the city council signed a letter brown-nosing Amazon executives and begging for a meeting. Kshama neither signed the letter nor attended the meeting; she instead made a statement that “the public should find it troubling that elected officials, who have been elected by votes of ordinary people, are having a private meeting with billionaire interests.” Four months later, a subset of the city council privately met to plan a special meeting to repeal the tax, which they called with less than the required 24 hours’ notice. Kshama tweeted to get the word out, calling the meeting a “backroom betrayal”. 

During her speech against the repeal, Sawant invited all who had shown up in protest to a collective strategy meeting, where the Tax Amazon movement would discuss next steps. When the time came for Sawant to cast her vote on the repeal, she stalled to let the chants of protesters be heard before voting no; meanwhile the council President threatened to close off the meeting to the public if their shouting continued. This is exactly the kind of distinction socialist politicians should be making between how they and their capitalist counterparts relate to mass movements.

Similarly, in a recent Providence DSA statement, the chapter highlighted how “[t]he State Senate passed its most progressive legislation — including a $15 minimum wage, a charter school moratorium, and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants” due to open opposition against the State Senate President, led by DSA State Senator Sam Bell. 

And, just a few weeks ago, Michigan State Representative and former Arizona teacher strike leader Dylan Wegela publicly broke ranks to vote against a billion dollars in legislative handouts to corporations. During this fight, Wegela was offered a backroom deal to support the handouts in return for retiring the debt of a local school contract, despite there being a majority for the debt retirement without tying it to the pro-corporate poison pill. Rather than accept this deal, he publicly agitated about how it was an example of working-class priorities being held hostage. 

Often in DSA, members argue that accountability is impossible without a prerequisite level of working-class organization and a relationship built between the chapter and the elected official. For instance, opponents of the proposed 1-2-3-4 Plan in NYC-DSA labeled the plan “a resolution solution to an organizing problem.” Of course, we’d prefer if Wegela was more deeply rooted in DSA. And being accountable to a democratic organization does help counteract conservatizing pressures and better empowers a working-class movement outside the state. However, Wegela’s staunch commitment to Michigan’s working class without structures of organizational accountability indicates that this kind of open-bargaining orientation is something that electeds can do on their own accord if they are thoroughly committed to refusing closed-door deals with capitalist politicians.

Nobody Said It Was Easy

It’s understandable why socialist electeds don’t always instinctively opt for this strategy, or when they do, they often abandon it in the name of practicality. Most of our electeds don’t enter government with a coherent idea of how a socialist elected should act or a plan for what to do once in office, which is in part due to DSA’s failure to provide them with this. Making it up as they go along means that they employ a variety of tactics, often combining a mix of outsider and insiderism. This ideological incoherence, along with the pressures from the establishment and not being embedded in a mass organization, means that opting for closed-door bargaining is the path of least resistance. Over time, politicians often come to employ insider tactics more and more. A prime example of this was AOC kicking off her term in Congress by joining activists in occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding a Green New Deal. Today, however, she fears that this kind of open confrontation could hurt the Democrats, leading to Republican victory, so she shies away from it. 

Other times, electeds may be afraid of getting removed from their committee seats, losing funding for their districts, or falling out of favor with Democratic leadership, viewing that as the pathway to achieving working-class reforms. NYC Council Members Alexa Avilés and Tiffany Caban were initially punished for opposing Eric Adams’s austerity budget: discretionary funding for initiatives in their district was reduced. While this was reversed and City Council leadership even claims it never happened, this exact form of retribution also happened to dissenting city councilors during the 2020 budget fight. On the other hand, New York State Senator Julia Salazar, who has at times taken more of an insider approach than her SIO counterparts, now serves as the Chair of the New York State Senate Democrats’ Steering Committee. This combination of carrots for playing along and sticks for going against the grain creates powerful incentives for electeds.

But we think that the trade-offs are worth it. Socialism, and even major social democratic reforms, won’t be won through backroom deals or by muting conflict with capitalist politicians, but through disruptive mass movements of working people. Our movement’s representatives should recognize that we will only get where we need to go if we bring the fight against the capitalist class out from behind closed doors.

Becca Roskill and Oren Schweitzer are members of New York City DSA and DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus. Becca previously organized with UAW Local 2710 and Columbia YDSA. Oren previously organized with Yale YDSA and served on YDSA and DSA’s National Labor Committee.