fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Switching roles in union contract negotiations

What does it take to settle a dispute? Not long ago I heard a presentation by a speaker with a lucrative sideline consulting business in the fast growing "conflict management industry." He laid out the four common elements of a tussle, to which I added explanatory questions.

  • Topic: What are we really arguing about — on the surface and below?
  • Relationship: Who has the actual and perceived power here? And who is more motivated to wield them?
  • Identity: Who's worried more about being disrespected, and who needs the most approval and validation?
  • Process: How are things playing out? Is this a fair fight with a logical endpoint, or unproductive show-boating and arm-wrestling?

Over the past 25 years, I've worked with many corporate clients involved in difficult, often protracted labor union contract negotiations with bargaining units made up of everything from registered nurses to truck drivers. The work involves explaining the employer's overall position at the outset of the talks, then interpreting complex proposals and offers for anyone interested in the final outcome of the bargaining.

In essence, communicators like me help shape and lay out the employer's story beforehand, then report on what happens at the table and why. Just an aside: I've always believed the endgame should be the formulation of a contract both sides can stomach, not necessarily one worthy of trumpeting.

Now here's the rub, given the four elements of a conflict noted above. Most of the employer's time and rhetoric are devoted to detailing No. 1 (Topic) and No. 4 (Process), while the union team often dwells on No. 2 (Relationship) and No. 3 (Identity). How do you get a reasonable deal when one tribe keeps arguing data points while the other works hard to score emotional points?

Here's my modest proposal. The next time you're gearing up for contract bargaining, either on the union's team or the employer's, how about switching points of view.

Employers, try zeroing in on Relationship. You know you hold most of the power cards because, in virtually all cases, you have the ability to hire and fire, to assign work and to discipline. But don't get carried away with that sense of absolute authority. Look for a collaboration of the willing, not a forced compromise with the ultimately disloyal if they feel abused. While organizations don't have emotions, employees do. Acknowledge the sense of diminishment and disrespect some union members can internalize in an unequal power dynamic.

I dare an employer's lead negotiator to ask the union team in all seriousness on the first day of bargaining: "How is everyone feeling today? And how do you want to feel when you get ratification of the contract we're about to craft together?"

Union teams, try focusing on Topic. Spend most of your energy at the table and elsewhere discussing the Big Three — wages and benefits, working conditions and job security. Stop tossing out emotionally charged hand grenades and red-herring issues designed only to curry favor among unionists or elicit sympathy from those who don't have a full grasp of the situation.

As for Process, get to the point. Even if you've held 50 meetings with bargaining unit members and gotten 5,000 suggestions of what to put in a contract, work toward swift, fair discussion of and agreement on the big issues. Remember, employer reps often think they have "day jobs" and don't really have time for drawn-out negotiations. Hence, the constant emphasis on Process.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last year that the number of American union members declined by 400,000 to its lowest level in nearly a century. While some executives may cheer that trend, smart employers know that the strongest unions aren't going anywhere soon. Unions that have done the best job for their members have only gotten more entrenched. So, it's time to figure out how to talk and work together in ways that really matter.

Marilyn Hawkins is a corporate communications consultant based in Ashland.