Union Matters: What’s it like being on a bargaining committee?

This week, we sit down with Tanya Hersey, member of Local 423 working in administrative support at the IWK; Paul Hagen, Board member and chair of the civil service PR bargaining group; and Donna MacGregor, President of Local 71C, Cignecto Regional Centre for Education, to talk about what it’s like to sit on a bargaining committee.



Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Union Matters, NSGEU’s weekly podcast. I’m your host this week, Holly [Fraughton], and I’m joined here today by Tanya Hersey, a member of Local 423 working in admin support at IWK, Paul Hagan, Board member and Chair of the Civil Service PR Bargaining Group, and Donna MacGregor, who is president of Local 71C – Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education. Welcome!

HF Thank you for agreeing to chat with me. We’re going to be talking today about what it’s like to be on a bargaining committee. Maybe we can start by talking a little bit about how the bargaining process itself works. Other union might approach things differently. Not all of our locals follow this process exactly, but generally speaking, a local elects their bargaining committee members and then we send around a bargaining survey to all members. All of our members should have gotten a bargaining survey from us at one point or another. Why is it so important for members to fill out that survey?


PH It gives us an idea what is on their mind as far as the contract. What they’d like changed, improvements they’d like to see. It’s their input. You’ve been at the water cooler for the past couple of years complaining, this is the time you put it down on a piece of paper and somebody within the union is going to read that. The representatives are going to say, okay, these are the things that are important to our members with regards to their contract.


HF It really is the opportunity for the member to have their say in what goes forward at the bargaining table. You guys take what’s on those surveys pretty seriously.


TH We do. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the questions that are being asked. Something I always advocate for is the demographic information. Folks may think that’s not really important, but it is, because it helps determine the weight of issues. It may be an issue directly related to young workers or it may be an issue that is related to retirement. Depending on where your local is and the demographics in it. It may be something that relates to a specific classification or a specific worksite. That’s where you’re going to find out that type of information. The bargaining committee can us that because if it’s something very important to one worksite, you know there’s and issue and it has to be addressed, where that issue may not be a concern for everybody else in the bargaining unit. That’s where we find that information.


HF That’s a piece of work that’s actually usually done by someone on staff here where they analyze all of the results of the survey and help break it down into the demographic areas so you can identify, based on peoples ages and stages of their career that their in, what are their most important issues for them. And that probably helps you as a bargaining committee decide what you’re going to tackle and what might need to wait for next time.


Another thing members might not realize is that they aren’t at the table alone when they go to bargain. You’re not sitting around with a group of your peers versus the employer. There is at least one person from staff that’s there with you to help you navigate the process.


Paul, what role do the staff usually play in bargaining?


PH I find they bring together all the input from other locals in other parts of the union and things they may have in their contracts that may need to be added to our contract. They also look across Canada and other regions, what’s on their contract, what’s going on at the time, what the standards are for wage increases, improvements in the workplace. They also look at aspects we may not be looking at directly as far as part-time issues, seasonal issues with our contract. A lot of that is brought up by staff, because they’re not usually represented at the table. They would look at those ideas and say, maybe in this round we should top up their rights and privileges within the contract.


HF So they look at what’s going on across the country and they try to make sure everybody form the local is represented, even the people who aren’t actually at the table.


PH Any clauses that maybe in another sector of the union that isn’t in our contract could then be added to the proposals.


HF In terms of process, when you sit on a bargaining committee, it’s usually in the contract that either the employer or the union covers your time off, so if you miss work in order to bargain your time is still paid, you’re not losing out on pay in order to participate in the process. It doesn’t always go within the typical 9 to 5 work hours. Do you find it involves a huge amount of time and sacrifice of your personal time to be on a bargaining committee?


DM I think that there is when you’re on a bargaining committee there’s a commitment that you need to make to the entire process and it isn’t just, if you work from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, bargaining doesn’t always stop at 4:30. If you have a momentum going, or if there’s something that you need to have a response ready for the employer for the next morning, you may have to have supper wherever you are and keep working into the evening to get that ready so that in the morning you can have a good start, rather than waiting and having to do all that in the morning when you get back to the table. I know that, a lot of times at the very end, when you’re really close to getting a deal at the table, those are very crucial hours and that’s the time when you could be making the decision as to whether or not your bargaining unit may have to go on strike. You can’t just walk out. You have to make that commitment and it may be late hours that you’re there. Or it may be you have to come in early. Generally, for me, it’s always been later. It might be midnight before we get out. But that’s not happening every single day. It’s usually just at that crunch time, because that’s the risks that are there. You could be taking your local potentially on strike. It’s not something we want to do. There may be some peak periods where you have to give some more of your own time. The union pays for childcare and eldercare. My child grew up with me bargaining, but I was able to pay for someone to look after him so I knew he was taken care of when I was there, so I didn’t have to worry about that. That’s because the union covers those expenses.


HF The union provides support to enable the process to unfold as it needs to.


DM Yeah, and if you have to stay over at a hotel or anything like that, they cover that expense too, so there’s nothing out of pocket for you, it’s your time and commitment.


HF That said, it IS a commitment and it’s something that not everybody is interested in doing or it hasn’t even occurred to them that they might want to do.  Paul, you’ve participated in bargaining many times. How many rounds of bargaining have you gone through?


PH Oh, four or five.


HF Okay, that’s no small amount. Donna, you’re close to that yourself


DM Yeah, I might be six or seven at this point.


HF And Tanya, this is your first round that you went through, right?


TH Right it was the first round, but I’m looking forward to being on the next round as well.


HF Oh, it must not have been a terrible experience, then.


TH No, it was very educational and informative. I really enjoyed the process and seeing how everything worked and how we went through the negotiations and all that kind of thing, so, it was good for me, so I’m very interested to continue on and be a part of bargaining committee next time, so if the members will vote me in, that would be great!


HF I kinda get the sense that once you’ve been on a bargaining committee it’s kinda like a gateway drug to the union.


TH It is! Between the convention and the bargaining I’m all in now!


PH And that’s reflected in how the NSGEU handles bargaining. It allows its members to have a word at the table. You’re sitting across from the employer talking about issues you want corrected or improved. You have a voice.


TH Right. And they listen. They take the time to listen and process and let you know if it’s a good reason or not a good reason and why.


HF So you might not end up getting everything you dreamed of going into the process, but you do feel like you have a say.


TH Correct


PH Yes, very much so. In my case, if there are directions you want to see and emphasis placed on certain areas, they listen. They present that at the next meeting with the employer and say “They really want to stress this.” In our bargaining we do the top 10 and then the top 5. We present them, standard practice. The Lead negotiator does take that and presents to the employer. They do follow through on what we want.


HF It really is a democratic process. At least on our side of the table. We really do try to listen to what the members say the priorities are and do the best to push for that at the table. They [the employer] don’t always cooperate fully…at least not in recent years! I’m curious how each of you got involved in a bargaining committee. Donna?


DM I was on the Local executive, newly elected, and I wanted to be involved in the bargaining process because I thought it would give me the opportunity to better understand what was actually in my agreement and what it actually meant. Sometimes the language doesn’t reflect the practice. Or it’s not always plain language. Sometimes it’s hard to understand. Sometimes there’s interpretation that’s involved. I felt like, as someone on the executive, I really needed to be able to answer those questions. When a member had a question I needed to know why this is the way it is and how we got to be where we are. So I think that’s why I continue to want to be involved, because I can see the progression of years ago what our collective agreement was and the changes that are there now and how far we have come over the years.


HF So you have that institutional knowledge of how that contract has evolved over the last 5 rounds of bargaining. Excellent. And yourself, Paul?


PH When I was first involved I found it really fascinating that, when I went to the table to discuss issues, there many people with the same type of issues, but the group listened to the input from a younger worker and I found that really inviting, so I said, wow, this is great! Went to the table and presented and worked out the contract and as I progressed through the years, I could see that at al the various levels, this union listens to the worker. If you have a certain clause it will be brought to the table and discussed to see if it can be part of the new contract. It’s sort of addictive that you want to help out and keep on going with that and improve the overall contract. Also improve the life and lot of all your fellow workers. These things have a ripple effect throughout the group, the economy, well-being of families. You’re contributing to Nova Scotia and society through your unions. I found that quite addictive over the years.


HF You are working to improve peoples’ working lives. That’s the net outcome if we’re doing it right. How about yourself, Tanya?


TH I started at convention in 2015 and when I came back from that and became local secretary and got voted on the bargaining committee. That’s how I originally became part of it. You see that you can make a difference and they’re open to hear that. It’s great to be part of the committee. The reason I’m hoping to go back is that now I can look back and some of the things we saw and said oh, that’s something we can look at next time. So now I’d have some background knowledge and be able to follow those up.


HF I know in particular with this round of health care bargaining, with the four different health care tables it was a real struggle because we were really fighting to keep what we had. I can imagine that anyone that was sitting on those bargaining tables is pretty keen to get back for next round and see if we can actually achieve some meaningful gains for people. That must have been an interesting experience.


TH It was very interesting. We have about 450 local members in the IWK, but I was the only representative for the IWK. There were about 12 others there from different areas in the province, but we all felt like one.


HF And we bargaining with the other component unions. Normally, we’re at a table by ourselves with the employer, but this time we were at the table with the other health care unions, bargaining collectively. That was an interesting experience.


PH In the civil services’ case, we were in constant contact with the teachers and also CUPE at the time, trying to get a good contract,  one of us trying to break the ceiling imposed by the Liberal government. We all worked together on a daily basis.


HF I think it’s interesting because this government thought they could divide and conquer and I think it backfired.


TH It certainly did.


DM And that’s from the strength of the membership, because the membership wasn’t going to take that. It’s their voice, from the person they elect onto the committee to their input surveys…everything’s coming from the members. That’s what it’s about. That’s the core of our union, is the membership. It’s very clear they have influence and they’re the most important part of the union. If we don’t have members, we don’t have a union.


HF What is the most frustrating part of being on a bargaining committee?


TH I found it was hard sitting at the table with the employer. We could not speak or say anything. We had to try to keep facial expressions down. Carol Crouse and Robin Maclean who represented up and they were the only ones who could speak. It was the same on the other side, there were about 17 and only 2 could speak, so it was very a hard and frustrating to keep things in when you wanted to jump up and say something.


HF Any other little frustrations that come out from time to time ion the bargaining process or after the bargaining process?


PH Yeah, I think after the bargaining process is very interesting when you go to the members and say this is the contract we get and they’re going well what about this and what about that? Well, there’s two sides and you have to get agreement from both sides. It can get very frustrating with your audience of not very many happy people sometimes when it’s just about job security. The last contract was not very good pay increases, but we maintained our contract. Sometimes not everybody gets everything they want. It’s hard and frustrating to members to realize that. But we’re here to listen. We go out and have town halls or road shows explaining what the contracts about. We’ve been open to that. Sometimes you have to deal with the good and the bad.


HF Another issue I hear from time to time is after the contract’s concluded you’ll get someone who’s upset because of an issue that is very segmented to them or it only effects a very minute portion of the local. Maybe the issue is a very big deal to them, but it doesn’t effect enough of the local to be made a priority at the bargaining table. That seems to be a tough one, too.


DM I think the most important thing I try to always keep in my mind when you come back and you’re offering to your local membership whatever offer it is you have from the table that they are going to view it as how is that going to effect them personally. So you have to keep that in mind. As a bargaining committee member, your job is to look at the whole picture. It’s hard sometimes to get from your mind set of the whole big picture to a single mind set of how is this going to effect me. You have to be able to go back and forth and understand that that’s where our members are coming from. It’s them that have to try to find someone to look after the child if they don’t have family illness day, for example. It does effect them personally, and that’s what they’re going to want to know. You have to be able to give a response that will answer their questions, but also try to broaden their perspective a bit and how it effects other members as well.


PH I remember one of our job security clauses in civil service that did not go over well. The members said Well, we don’t get laid off. Ten years later with the conservative and liberal governments, thank god we have that language. It saved a lot of people’s livelihood. The government mandated 10% job reduction in civil service, but we have a clause that after 2 years service they have to find you a job of equal pay. That’s something we’ve tried to get into other components of NSGEU, but haven’t be that successful, but it’s great for the civil service.


HF So something that’s seen inconsequential to a lot of the members at the time, has ten years later proven to be a godsend.


DM I think that speaks a lot to the bargaining team and NSGEU staff being able to have the foresight to know or expect that some of these things may be coming down the pipe. It’s sometimes hard to have that perspective, but that’s where you’re looking at trends in other provinces. The union has to have that kind of foresight to know that this is something lacking and you need to have that.


HF Or to be able to see under a particular government that we’re not going to be able to get a monetary increase, so let’s see what else we can get for our members that’s going to pay off down the road. Another, or perhaps the biggest, advantage to being on the bargaining committee from a self-interested point of view is that you actually get to know your collective agreement inside and out, backwards and forwards. What other things have you gotten out of the experience of being on the bargaining committee?


DM For myself, the comradery of working with that bargaining committee. You get very close. You’re with each other and your employee relations officer and other staff that may come in, you get to know them really well. Sometimes you may be at each other a little because you don’t always see eye-to-eye, that’s for sure, but you’re spending a lot of time with those people and you end up being very good friends with them afterwards. As you’re going on and being a union activist you develop that relationship together, so that’s a good part of it.


HF You get to exercise your skills of diplomacy! Anything from you, Paul, on what you’ve gotten out of it?


PH The civil service has a wide range of occupations, so it’s great to meet components from clerical, components from technical and get an understanding of where they are in the realm of things as far as pay scales and work life and experience and that balance. The comradery and you get to know staff within the union and understand their role. Sometimes you’ll get a call out of the blue asking what you think about an issue because you were on the committee. I was able to offer my services as a trustee on the pension plan and the LTD plan and being on the bargaining committee led to that stuff.


HF Or you’ll get a call from staff asking if you want to be on a podcast! How about you, Tanya?


TH I agree with Donna and Paul. You meet great people and make friends. Also being in health care I’ve learned a lot of things outside of my department. I’ve been in my own little bubble of diagnostic imaging for 20 years. Now I get to see and hear and know more of what goes on in our facility and across the province and different unions. We all have the same issues and concerns. We all have something in common we want to fight and work for.


HF That’s a really good point. It helps broaden your horizons and develop a greater understanding of issues not just in your workplace or local but in your profession. What would you say to a member who doesn’t have a lot of experience with the union but may be interested in taking part in the bargaining process in the future? What would you recommend they do?


DM I think the first thing they need to do is go to local meetings. That’s my number one. Local meetings is where you hear about things that are going on in your local. That’s where the opportunities will be for you to become involved. To get elected to a committee or elected to your executive or just understanding what’s going on. You learn about what’s going on in the union, things the union is doing you may not necessarily see on the floor at work.


HF And depending on your local it may be difficult to find people to be on a bargaining committee. In some locals you’ve got the same people and it’s kinda tough to get on a bargaining committee. It’s good to go to a local meeting and figure out where things are and whether or not they need people and go from there.


DM I think, generally, if someone new comes to a local meeting, the executive is going to be really happy to see you coming through that door. You don’t always see new, keen people that really want to be involved. The number one thing as a responsibility as a member is that you need to be informed. That’s how you’re going to be informed. Go to the web site. Go to social media. Go to your local meetings. Ask questions. You need to be informed.


HF Check your emails! I know we send a lot, but check your emails, please!


PH If you have new ideas, you’ll be listened to. It may not be successful the first go, but maybe down the road. Every idea is entertained at the NSGEU, so keep that in mind. Show up at your local. Help out.


HF I hear that a lot from members. A lot of members who start to get active with the union are really surprised that the NSGEU is so receptive to new ideas and they’re so open-minded. I think it’s because a lot of employers aren’t. They don’t get met with the same reception when they want to try something different at work, and so it’s kind of refreshing to come into the union side of things and have a more open mind, perhaps.


You have answered all the questions I have. Is there anything you wanted to mention?


PH The great importance the support the staff here provide, booking hotels, doing up reports, doing up notes, added to the whole picture and made the whole team good. It’s seen as professionalism when we go to the table. The other union notice. All the little things are done properly here. It’s great! Very few things are issues. Everything seems to go smoothly on our part. It’s great when you have all your points laid out and everyone has their hotels booked and time booked off, makes it a lot easier to just show up and concentrate on the contract.


HF Well, we’ve been doing it for 60 years now, so we’re a well-oiled machine! Thank you for that. I’m sure the staff appreciates that, Paul.


I really appreciate you all joining us here today, so thank you for your time. And, to our listeners, thanks so much for tuning in to Union Matters. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please don’t forget to subscribe. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter @NSGEU. Have a good one!

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