Reflections on collective bargaining: Talk tough, not dirty (Guest commentary)

Preparation, perseverance, patience, plain speech, politeness can trump profanity

It is said that you shouldn’t mud wrestle with pigs, because you get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

In negotiations, it is best not to fight dirty unless you absolutely have to. If you fight dirty you may just end up with more dirt on yourself. Besides, you may find that your opponents are in their element and like it much better than you do.

It is important to recognize the character of the other side. Do not get drawn into the type of negotiation that actually plays to their strength. After all, why play in their pigpen when you should be trying to sweet-talk them into your kitchen.

How to do it right

The chief negotiator for Ford Canada in their recent successful deal with the Canadian Auto Workers is a woman named Stacey Allerton Firth, the company’s vice-president of HR. She received some very positive press recently, including a glowing article in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 30, 2005. According to Buzz Hargrove, CAW’s seasoned leader, Allerton Firth is one of the best company negotiators he has ever dealt with.

Hargrove and I appeared together on a television panel when the recent NHL lockout was at one of its most sensitive stages. Hargrove is a great guy when you are chatting about someone else’s negotiations, but he can be tough as nails and quite prepared to get down-and-dirty when the going gets tough in his own backyard. No need with Allerton Firth, Hargrove reports — the negotiating table was kept clean as a whistle. It had nothing to do with Allerton Firth’s gender and everything to do with her skill.

An enlightened feature of Allerton Firth’s work in preparing her negotiating team was the training she arranged in communications and problem-solving. Ford’s team was not just prepared to talk about the company’s issues, they were also prepared to effectively listen to the CAW about the workers’ issues. Rather than grappling with a foe, the Ford team worked side-by-side in collaboration with their partners in business — Ford’s employees and their union representatives.

Anyone who followed the Ford talks knows that nice people do not have to finish last. Far from rolling over, Allerton Firth, together with the CAW, came to grips with their mutual problems, rather than coming to grips with each other. Wage raises were kept down, an agreement was reached to cut 1,100 jobs and the employees’ pension plan was protected.

Preparation, perseverance, patience, plain speech, politeness, pragmatism were the “p” words at Ford-CAW table, not pigs and profanity. When tough issues came up, as they always do, the parties kept calm and worked their way through them. I have not met Allerton Firth, but I expect that she can fight hard if she needs to. I also expect that, if she ever has to, at the very earliest opportunity, she would climb out of the mud, get cleaned up, and get right back to work.

How not to do it

In a negotiation I had a few years ago with the Steelworkers, there was a tough old worker who had been around the company and the union for a long time. I’ll call him Sean. During the negotiating sessions, Sean sat at the end of the table, almost as though he were in a neutral position between the two parties. He was cantankerous and foul-mouthed throughout the process. Sean was not well-versed on the specifics of most issues, but he had wide-ranging general opinions and felt free to share them, sometimes at the most inopportune moments.

I finally got fed up and told him to shut up and f—- off. In effect, I jumped, both feet forward, right into the mud pit. Sean was there waiting for me in all his self-righteous glory — he was in his element and I was totally out of my depth. He called me rude, disrespectful of the working man and a disgrace. He told me that I was an example of all the things that the union had been complaining about — management treated the workers like scum and then were surprised when the workers would not co-operate.

I like to think I am a fast learner. I scrambled out of that mud pit as fast as possible and fled to the company caucus room. Fifteen minutes later, I came back with only one of my team members and apologized to the entire union negotiating team. I told them that I had been unprofessional and that, by doing so, I was getting in the way of progress, rather than helping us get closer to a deal. I said that I was prepared to be patient, to listen and to try to achieve a mutual resolution. Then, perhaps most importantly, I told them that I could not do it alone. I needed their help and co-operation, just as I needed the support of the other members of my own team.

Sean said, “Apology accepted, let’s get back to work.” Although he teased me about my blow-up for the rest of the negotiations, from that time forward, he and the rest of the union team played it the same way I did. We listened to each other. We worked hard. We stayed away from the muck. We got the deal done.

That’s not to say that labour negotiators can always take the high road. When all is said and done, be prepared to muck it up.

If they want to fight dirty…

The classic Canadian stereotype in bargaining is the conciliatory compromise-seeker. I certainly prefer to play this role of problem-solver. Most of us want to seem reasonable and pleasant. But, beware.

You cannot be an effective compromise-seeker if the other side is not prepared to play along. It takes two to tango and if the other side does not want to dance, then you have to be prepared to get mean and nasty. This was once described to me as “tit-for-tat” bargaining, which is to say, you should walk along the path of compromise as far as it will take you, but if the other side becomes combative and you continue to compromise, then they will not only win, they will annihilate you.

Another way to look at it is to fight fire with fire, trade punch for punch. Don’t get carried away. The purpose of this battling is not to win the war, but to return to the peace table. Once the other side has had enough of unproductive combat, they should be ready to resume sensible discussions.

I remember starting a set of negotiations many years ago when the union’s first line was, “When are you going to stop killing our members?” I asked the union representative what he was talking about and he proceeded to tell me about air quality issues in the plant. I said, “I’m sorry. I thought that I was here to engage in collective bargaining. I see that I have walked into a health and safety meeting. I will get the company’s health and safety representatives to come meet with you now if you wish. As for me, I will be in the company’s caucus room. When you are ready to start negotiations, give me a call.”

I stood up and left. The union called me back to the table 15 minutes later. That was the last we heard about air quality during the negotiations.

In another negotiations, when the union president called the plant manager a liar, I stood up, yelled at him, and told him never to challenge the honesty of any of my committee members. I then stormed out of the room. The rest of my committee had the good sense to follow. We achieved a recommended settlement later that afternoon. Without prompting, the president apologized to the plant manager.

Do not follow the easy path simply because it is easier to follow. To have the kind of peace and harmony that results in effective negotiations, you have to be prepared to go to war. The other side has to believe that you have the will and the strength to do so. Never threaten a war lightly or start it quickly or rashly, but always try to end any war quickly and rationally. To the extent possible, you should strive to settle your collective agreements in the cool calm of a conciliatory discussion and not in the heat of an angry conflict. However it is settled, once the deal is done and ratified, get back to the business of business as quickly as possible.

If you find yourself in the thick mud with a pig, start grunting, be prepared to grapple with the hog and get covered with dirt. Then, climb out of the muck as quickly as possible, get cleaned up, and get a deal.

Jamie Knight is a partner in the Toronto offices of management labour law firm Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti. He may be contacted at (416) 408-5509 or [email protected].

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