Is Folly Still Marching? Seven Pitfalls for Contract Negotiation Campaigns


Labor Relations and Research Center


Historian Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly examines four instances of what she considered to be folly in human history – bringing the wooden horse into Troy, Renaissance popes’ consistent bad behavior triggering the Protestant Reformation, arrogant British policies causing the loss of thirteen valuable colonies, and a shortsighted, imperialistic US policy in Vietnam. Tuchman defined “folly” as actions contrary to self-interest conducted by a number of people over time despite criticisms declaring the acts to be foolish.

Although this is my first year at UMass and I am new to our union, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), my experience with labor has given me insights about the right ways, and some wrong ways, to approach contract negotiations. As GEO gets ready to launch negotiations for our next contract, it is important that we do not adhere to a formula that may no longer work. With the goal of securing a contract that satisfies all GEO members, I present seven pitfalls unions often fall into that set them up for failure.  As we move forward, I hope we can say that none of these apply in our union.


Pitfall 1 – Leave your members uneducated and send them a survey you already have the answers for. 

Salary and insurance are obviously most member’s greatest concerns during negotiations. But too often items necessary to overall workplace conditions, issues currently important to a certain faction of your members, or language important to strengthening locals are ignored. Are there important issues concerning GEO members that are not addressed on the survey? Perhaps a meeting where membership is engaged and encouraged to talk about the issues important to them is needed to find out.

Pitfall 2 – Mystify negotiations and create a culture inhibiting involvement of rank-and-file members.

Working people standing united wield tremendous power. But some locals leave members out of negotiations, seeming to believe that bargaining is a ritual only for the initiated, and negotiators are endowed with powers not shared with ordinary mortals. While there is much to be said about skill and experience, it is important to remember that any negotiator’s greatest strength is a strong local membership supporting the contract proposal. It is hard for members to strongly support a proposal in which they have had little input, or which they know little about.

My local created a Contract Information and Support Committee (CISC) to support our negotiators. The CISC, working on the principle that the contract struggle is constant, educated members, conducted surveys and helped plan our next contract campaign. Most importantly, the CISC included more members in the negotiations process from the beginning and helped make us a stronger, more focused, and more effective union.

Pitfall 3 – Believe that your employer would never impose a contract or force you to make concessions.

Many members like to believe that although employers elsewhere may impose employment terms, their management would never stoop to imposition. But, the truth is management’s job is always to get the best product at the lowest cost.

Public sector strikes are illegal in Massachusetts. But my mantra as local president, following the sage advice of organizer Ellen David Friedman, currently organizing industrial workers in China, was, “The best way to avoid a strike is to prepare for one.” To that end, my local brought out over half of our members to a Monday evening school board meeting demanding a fair contract – we had one before the week was out.

Pitfall 4 – Rely on others to win a good contract for you.

Unions were formed because workers knew that they could only really depend on other workers. Worker-led unions achieved the eight-hour day, livable wages, insurance benefits and weekends. But as unions and responsibilities grew, workers depended less on themselves and more on paid employees and politicians.

Reliance on others has weakened labor. Collegial relationships between union officials and management have often led to backroom deals and corruption; politicians have consistently betrayed labor when expedient. Disempowered members thus left unions, and most American workers have experienced reductions in pay and benefits since.

Pitfall 5 – Believe that you are not like other workers and that your union is not a real “union.” 

Many members belong to unions for the benefits, but cringe at the idea of belonging to a “union.” Unions received a bad name during the 1950s after Cold War “red baiting” purged labor of their most progressive leaders, and allowed some corrupt bureaucrats into management positions. But history shows that unions have consistently been the “good guys,” helping working people earn a fair wage, creating what we know as the middle class, and leading the struggle for human rights of all Americans. Before unions, industrial corporations imposed wage-labor slavery on millions of Americans. Unions successfully organized workers and led the struggle for economic and social justice.

Pitfall 6 – Believe that you can win a good contract all by yourself.

While workers can only depend on other workers, most local unions are not now strong enough to succeed by themselves. However, the majority of Americans are facing similar situations today – cutbacks, losses of benefits, deteriorating working conditions. There is much research showing the benefits for labor in working with like-minded organizations, and it is important to forge genuine coalitions with them. In 2011, Burlington, Vermont, area bus drivers won a satisfactory contract with a strong alliance of student, community and other labor groups.

Pitfall 7 – Go to your members only after everything has failed and you are in crisis                 mode.

It’s a broken record: negotiations have broken down, we’re at impasse – time to rile up members. To be fair, that strategy has often been successful. But recent contract concessions and impositions show that, perhaps, unions have gone to the well too often. Members cannot be expected to support a contract proposal they have little investment in. It’s clear that workers need to be involved in the negotiations process from the very beginning. Yes, it takes more time and more work, but the results are usually worth it.


The 1930s were the worst economic crisis the United States had ever seen – businesses closed, unemployment reached 25 percent, thousands of banks failed.  Millions of Americans were homeless and dying of starvation. Yet, labor unions enjoyed their greatest triumphs during the period, achieving success on “bread and butter” issues revolving around pay, benefits and working conditions, and also pressing for such reforms as unemployment insurance, national fair labor standards and Social Security. Labor unions during the 1930s proved that they were a force able to bring positive change for their members and others. How could they have won with so many cards stacked against them?

Those unions of the 1930s were democratic organizations. Many members were very involved both at the organizational level and socially. Those unions’ decisions to strike – often an illegal action in those days – were not rash, presented to members as their last chance keep what they have, but rather as part of a member-formulated plan to achieve their objectives. Since the members had invested themselves in both the process and the decision, they were willing to do whatever was necessary; their success transformed the relationship between American employees and their employers for forty years.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Too often, over the past 30 years, unions have done just that, entering negotiations with the same tired formulas, and then either retreating and yielding important concessions, or launching poorly conceived and usually unsuccessful job actions or strikes. Taking chances with outmoded procedures, despite what is already known about how successful union contract campaigns are conducted, certainly passes as  “folly” for me. However, to be fair, it is hard to have a democracy if only a handful of people show up. Nature, even human nature, abhors vacuums, and without a strong member presence to raise questions and discuss solutions, it is only natural for elected officers to move forward without a thorough vetting of proposed actions. Too often, in my experience, those actions follow the path of least resistance, and are rarely successful in achieving genuinely satisfactory contracts.

As GEO enters contract negotiations for next year, I believe it will be up to all members to determine what they want, and what they are willing to do get it, to be successful. Get information; come to meetings; get involved! I believe no working student wants to witness another chapter of folly’s continued marching in labor-management relations.


Brian Walsh has been a social studies teacher for 27 years with an MA in History from the University of Vermont. He has served as a grievance rep, union local President, state board director and two terms as Vermont-NEA Vice President. He is currently a second-semester labor student at UMass.



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