This is a true story.
*Denotes this name has been changed in respect to privacy.
Twenty-two, idealistic, and eager to prove myself. I arrived early to Morning Sun Adolescent Center* to prepare the conference room. In one hour, two Youth Counselors, two therapists, a teacher and my boss would arrive. I placed a meticulously assembled folder at each seat — Morning Sun Adolescent Center Contract Negotiating Team. The flip-chart at the front of the room was ready to go. After one year of door-knocking, petition-pushing and rally turn-out calling, I had proven myself ready to train to negotiate a union contract.
Six-o’clock rolled around and in comes Malik*, Eddie*, Julian*, Celestina* and Adam*. I greeted them with a huge smile, excitement and small talk to reassure everyone the commitment to join the Negotiation Team was a worthwhile decision. Lacey Lee*, my director, swiftly enters with a commanding presence and the conversation stops. It’s time to get down to business. Morning Sun Adolescent Center is a for-profit incarceration facility for violent juvenile offenders suffering from severe mental and physical trauma. The staff was working without healthcare for their dependents, adequate workplace safety measures or a decent raise. Lacey asked each Negotiation Team member “who do you represent?” Malik and Eddie both said “Youth Counselors.” Julian said “the teachers.” Adam said “Man-kind” and Celestina snapped back “Woman-kind.” We laughed and Lacey segued the discussion to have everyone take in the weight of their presence across the bargaining table with Morning Star Adolescent Center Management. While each worker was directly representing the interests of their colleagues, their collectively bargained contract will have an impact on industry standards, the regional job market and their profession. Ultimately, each person on the bargaining team was representing all working people.
Management was represented by Chris, Director of Morning Star Adolescent Center, Darren Allen, CEO of Morning Star Inc. and Steve and Walter, two other directors from corporate. We agreed bargaining sessions would be held weekly on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 6–10pm for the next two months, or until we reached a tentative agreement to present to union membership for a vote. During bargaining, each member of management’s team will speak to areas of their own expertise. Only Lacey Lee, Chief Negotiator, would speak for the Union. This strategy is intentional and means the union speaks with one voice.
Most of bargaining wasn’t actually sitting across the table from management. It was sitting together in a room, caucusing , forming proposals, waiting while management caucused and reviewing management’s counter proposals. We got to know each other’s stories over this time. Julian was the first one from his family to graduate from college. He was also always flirting with me. Celestina immigrated to the US from Russia as a little girl. She had been married to her husband for five years and would like to one day own a home. Malik is a survivor of the civil war in Sierra Leone. He and his wife arrived to the US as refugees. He started a non-profit organization to ship used clothing from the US to survivors of war back home. Eddie has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area all his life. He had fathered two children with two different women and worked two jobs to make enough to pay child support. Adam was from Oregon and moved to the Bay Area for college. He was enrolled in a challenging internship at an elderly care facility to advance his career.
We ended up talking about anything and argued about everything — discussions about gay marriage, religion, relationships, culture and politics all arose in heated debates, tension and judgment. Lacey, Celestina and I were trapped with all these men that questioned our competence and were assessing our attractiveness and likability.
Two months had gone by. The union and management got closer to an agreement. We knew we were bargaining from a strong position because the entire workforce showed their support for us. On bargaining days, employees wore union buttons, and emailed and phoned their managers directly to communicate why it’s important for management to accept the proposal being presented today in bargaining. What we didn’t anticipate is that while the gap between management and the union’s contract closed, so did the gap between us. We began to listen to each other, learn from each other, see from each other’s perspectives and root for each other to succeed. The men even started treating Lacey, Celestina and I with respect.
We were three months into bargaining, tired from late nights and juggling work, school, family and personal obligations with no time to spare. Management had agreed to healthcare for dependents, job reclassification for employees taking on additional duties and new safety equipment. All that was left was wage increases over the next three years. We could agree on the amount for year two and year three but we were off by two-percent upon contract ratification. Management’s stance was that the raise was impossible because the corporation doesn’t have the money to pay for it. We didn’t want to risk a strike because we had come so far, but we had a duty to represent everyone that didn’t have a seat at the table. We decided to reject management’s offer, insist on an additional two-point-five-percent increase, knowing we would settle at one-percent. We nervously ate pizza and waited. Management returned to the room and sat down. Darren Allen says “We will give another one-point-five-percent, and that’s our last offer.” The entire Union bargaining team kept a stone-face as Lacey said “We request a break to caucus.” Management walked out of the room and Chris closed the door behind them. Without making a noise, we all jumped out of our seats, our faces lit up with thrill, eyes and mouths wide open making the expression of screaming. Lacey calmly says “we don’t need to let them back in yet, let them wait and let’s enjoy this.” At that moment a room full of workers had all the power — the power of a union.