One of the hot topics here and elsewhere is the impending negotiation around the so-called "fiscal cliff" (it's really more of a gentle slope) and how Dems might - and/or ought to - approach that process.
Since helping to lead the fight to unionize my hospital a dozen years ago, I've been involved in a number of long and difficult contract negotiations. I've learned a lot in the process, and from the experts who lead our bargaining teams.
I want to share with you some thoughts about how a union - a real union that is - approaches contract negotiations. They aren't the same thing as political negotiations, but there are a lot of similarities. The biggest similarity is that what matters is not how good a negotiator you are - it's how much force you have behind you. How close the administration and congressional Dems come to following this model is a pretty good clue to how good a settlement we are likely to come up with. I will include a few comments on the history of the health care negotiations - as a lesson in how not to do it.
So here is the recipe that has allowed my union - the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United to negotiate excellent contracts even in difficult times and build a strong and fast growing union:
To translate this into political negotiations, you might substitute constituents for members.
1. Engage your members early in the process: Long before going to the bargaining table we ask members for suggestions of what they want in the contract. We survey them on their priorities. We sign them up to be leaders on their units. We make them feel engaged and empowered in the process.
2. Talk up "the ideal": On every issue, we identify the solution the members like best. We then tell them they deserve that. We look for instances where nurses other places have won that. Tell them there is no reason they shouldn't have that. Tell them that management can easily give them that and that if they don't it's because they are greedy heartless bastards.
3. Report frequently on the bargaining process: What happens at the table is the least important part of the process. It's what happens in the facility - the engagement of our members (constituents) that tells the tale. So you have to keep them informed. You don't negotiate in a spotlight, but you do keep people fully informed. "We proposed this, and management responded with this...". We keep that accurate - if you lie about the negotiations, it poisons the process and loses trust. But we don't pull punches either. If management are being assholes, we let the members know that -without saying it in so many words ;-)
4. Find ways for people to show their support: We start right off early with getting members to wear buttons of support for the bargaining team. We ask them to send letters to management on a certain day about a certain issue. We escalate that process. First a button, then a letter, then circulating petitions among the public, then an informational picket. But keep people engaged!
5. When management moves in their position, claim the victory: Let members know that their activism and engagement made the difference. It gives them positive reinforcement and a reason to stay engaged.
6. Don't be too anxious to finish: Timing matters, and it takes experience to know when to push forward and when to hold back. But a good solution is more important than a fast one.
7. Know when to declare victory: Here's the hard part. You've talked up the ideal. You've engaged people in the fight for the ideal. Even members of your bargaining team have become invested in the ideal. But you've moved management a lot, you've gotten a good deal - now you move just enough on your side to get the final deal done. That usually means that you aren't getting the ideal, but you know you've gotten the best you possibly can. And you often have a challenge to get your members to believe that the deal you got really was the best possible. But if you've kept them involved and built a level of trust with them, that's usually a manageable issue.
Now let's look at a few points from the health care fight.
Did our side engage their constituents? No. In fact, they suppressed their strongest constituents. The people who had been fighting - some of us for decades - for single payer were excluded in every possible way. In fact, a whole organization - HCAN - was formed at the request of the administration largely for the purpose of marginalizing single payer supporters. If the administration had encouraged single-payer folks, that would have been the publicly identified "far left position". As such, it would not have happened, but it would have created the negotiating space to make the so-called public option the "centrist compromise" By shutting down single-payer folks, the administration guaranteed that the public option would be identified as the "far left position" And as we all know, in America, anyone who advocates the "far left position" is "unserious" and must be marginalized. Shutting down talk of single payer helped to make the public option impossible. Talking up the ideal does not mean you win the ideal. But it does let you win a better compromise. In the health care debate, right from the start, the argument was for a better compromise. But -seeming paradox - you don't win a better compromise by arguing for it. You win a better compromise by arguing for the ideal.
And you don't engage the power of your supporters by negotiating in the dark. You engage that power by keeping them informed. Remember the long periods of secret or semi-secret talks, designed to get a vote from a Lieberman or a Snowe? In the union world, we'd be keeping people informed about those talks and asking them to apply pressure to the target individual.
What would our style of fight look like in the upcoming discussions? We do hear a few hopeful signs. The president is making firm statements about his bargaining positions - not all I want to hear, but at least some. We are hearing plans for rallies and public events - that's good. They need to be big, and inclusive. If they are going to work and have the desired effect, they should include those voices who are determined to win the ideal - big tax increases on the rich, no cuts in the safety net. A financial transaction tax to make Wall Street pay us back for bailing them out. Empowering and encouraging voices like ours makes more room for a better compromise in the end. So that will be another important clue to watch: Does the administration encourage and embrace voices like CNA, NNU, Occupy and others on the left, or does it try to shut us down and marginalize us? If they embrace us, it means they want to win this fight. If they push us to the side, the fix is in and they are already playing to lose.