Table talk - war stories from the negotiating front

People who have been there, done that, talk about collective bargaining

Susan Cassidy
Vice-president of HR with Calgary Laboratory Services

“A huge part of effective negotiations is in planning and preparing,” says Susan Cassidy, vice-president of HR with Calgary Laboratory Services and a teacher of negotiations at the University of Calgary.

Before entering a round of negotiations, Cassidy usually asks someone from her team to act as a union negotiator and think of everything the union could possibly bring to the table. “I don’t want to be blindsided,” she says.

Once you actually get to the table you have to be able to draw on a wide range of tactics and strategies, she says. “We can literally play good guy, bad guy. We’ll have someone talk really negative and then I come in and get a little softer.”

Time-limited offers put extra pressure on and force the other side’s hand or you may hold back certain demands until the deadline approaches. Games of chicken aren’t uncommon as each side digs in their heels and waits to see who flinches first, she says.

Conversations off the record are an integral part of the process. If the union team proposes something that is totally unrealistic they are often doing it to impress other people in the union. “I need to know what is going on behind the scenes,” she says. They may have a group that wants something and the negotiator needs to be seen to be pushing for it. Once you understand that it is easier to bargain in a way that allows union negotiators to save face.

Then there is the art of making an offer. High and low offers are obviously part of the game as each side makes room for bargaining. But the initial offers send very strong messages and putting the wrong offer on the table can provoke such a strong reaction from the other side that the negotiations fall apart.

A few years ago, the Alberta government began a bargaining session with the province’s nurses with a proposal for a five-per-cent wage rollback. Rather than bargain at all, the nurses were so offended they simply packed up and walked out for three weeks, she says.

Often the union will show up and tell you how rotten the company is and how rotten the people are. They’ll have employees come in and tell horror stories — “Things I can’t imagine to be true,” says Cassidy.

“You have to be patient and you cannot emotionally respond to all the crap you hear,” she says. The natural tendency is to move onto the defensive and refute the seemingly outrageous claims. The better strategy is to play the diplomat. “I’ll tell them ‘I want to know more about that,’ or ‘We need to followup on that.’” It’s important to look for that “kernel of truth” and deal with it so the process doesn’t get derailed, she says. If she meets with the union one day and they make an accusation, she’ll caucus with her team, pick up the phone and find out what management’s interpretation of the same events are so the next day they can go back and say here is what we have found out.

Buzz Hargrove
President of the Canadian Auto Workers

EVERY TIME the CAW negotiates with the Big Three it is an intense, high-pressure affair, says Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers and an integral player in every round of bargaining since 1979.

Typically, once the CAW decides which of the automakers it wants to target it allows just 10 days to hammer out a contract which is then used to pattern agreements with the other two and in the past it has always gone down to the wire. (At press time, the CAW was preparing to announce its target company for the current round of bargaining).

It takes a certain kind of personality to function effectively in that high-pressure environment and some people find it very difficult to manage the stress. “I recall in one set of negotiations with Ford, one of their top negotiators collapsed,” says Hargrove. After a few hours, he was fine, he was simply overcome by the stress.

Hargrove says he gets by on the adrenaline of the sometimes unruly proceedings. “I remember in ’96, when we had the GM strike, I went 72 hours without sleep.”

In fact, he says short, intense, sometimes round-the-clock bargaining is actually helpful in getting an agreement.

“Momentum is everything,” says Hargrove. “Once you are driving toward a settlement if you give (the bargaining teams) a few hours they start visualizing all these problems.”

Hargrove maintains that whenever the two sides agree on something it should be put into the contract and move on. If the negotiating teams have the time to look too closely, they may start having second thoughts. “Everything you write down is subject to 10 different interpretations… It is important to keep it going,” he says.

Even when the two sides aren’t actually sitting across the table from each other, Hargrove wants his team talking about what is going on. Often a bargaining team tables their demands then they sit back and relax, he says. Not so with the CAW. “We are talking from the time we get up in the morning,” he says, constantly challenging themselves and reviewing possible responses from management and talking about how the union should respond.

Over the course of the bargaining session, conflicts arise but almost invariably they are personality driven rather than issue driven, says Hargrove. Tempers fray and on occasion you need someone to come in and get angry, he says. But ideally there should always be someone to calm things down before things get out of hand and the session is lost. “If I get emotional, I have a couple of people who will kick me,” he says.

geneviéve bich
Vice-president, Industrial Relations for Bell Canada

Right from the first day of talks, it’s important to try and build trust between the two sides and hopefully chemistry between chief negotiators, says genvieve bich, vice-president of industrial relations for Bell Canada.

If the two sides feel uneasy with each other or they can’t trust one another it’s going to make it difficult to agree on anything. But if you have a good rapport with the chief negotiator it becomes easier to have private discussions which the table may or may not find out about. This is not to hide information, but it makes it easier to discover the underlying factors shaping a position, she says.

A good working chemistry will help when things go bad, says bich. As much as possible negotiations should be conducted in a professional, controlled manner but emotions are constantly bubbling just below the surface. If people get tired, nerves get a little frayed and tempers can be lost; that is when you have to be able to agree to take a break and let things cool down.

Equally important, as chief negotiator you have to be acutely aware of how the actions of your team are affecting the other side and triggering the emotions that can get in the way, and conversely how they are responding to what the other side is doing.

Ideally, each member of a bargaining team should be self-aware in this way, but it is not always the case.

“We were at the table and one of the company spokespersons kept interrupting the union spokesperson. You could see the other person going through the stages of anger; trying to calm down then his face was getting red. Then he just blew out, ‘Let me speak, you never let me speak.’” A break was called and the company spokesperson was astonished the union person couldn’t keep it together. He didn’t understand that to the union, this was just another example of management being rude toward the union and never listening to what employees have to say.

Often overlooked but vital to successful bargaining is good note keeping, says bich. People can come into a new day of bargaining with completely different interpretations of what was agreed upon the day before.

“Too often I’ve seen people think they’ve agreed and they haven’t.” When you do agree on something, make sure everyone is clear on what it is, and get it down in writing before you move on. “You do a full and final review, but if you have agreed on a paragraph, sign off now.”

A good sense of timing is also useful, says bich. If you have just told the union something they aren’t happy about then wait a while before delivering your next difficult message, she says. And anytime you have to present what will be an unpopular demand, prepare the other side by talking about the developments in the business that have precipitated it. If you give them the context first, it will make it easier to have a non-emotional discussion.

Barry Barnes
Former Manager of Labour Relations of Otis Canada

Barry Barnes has learned during many years of negotiating with unions that a key to reaching a satisfactory agreement for the company is to treat union negotiators with respect.

In most cases, union negotiators come to the table extremely well-prepared and if the management team isn’t equally primed they could be in trouble, said the former manager of labour relations for Otis Canada.

“My experience is that in many organizations the union people have every clause memorized and management doesn’t,” he says.

You also have to respect that they are politicians. They are elected representatives of a group of people with a mandate to get the best deal possible; more importantly they have to be seen to be working for the best deal possible.

“There is a certain degree of saving face,” says Barnes. He recalls one round of bargaining where the union packed up and left early on a Friday afternoon, golfed all weekend and came back to settle on the deal at 4 a.m. Monday morning.

Because the union negotiators want to appear as though they are driving a hard bargain, a lot of negotiation breakthroughs won’t happen at the table. You have to be able to take the chief negotiator for a walk and ask what they really need, says Barnes. That is where some of the real dealing gets done — if you can convince your side to accept this, I’ll try to convince my side to give up that.

Barnes believes finely tuned labour negotiation skills can only be developed through many years of experience.

Many company negotiators get too caught up in bargaining the contract on the table. At some point you have to start thinking about two or three contracts down the road. Even if a provision is watered down, just get it into the contract and then you can look at improving the language during the next round.

After many rounds of bargaining, you learn how to read and interpret things in a way that can’t be taught. It is not always easy to read the other side when sitting across the table from each other, says Barnes. It is essential you are well-prepared and you have as much information as possible about what the union will be looking for, but at a certain point you have to rely on instinct that comes from years of experience, says Barnes.

It’s learning to trust gut reactions but in a rational way and not in an uncontrolled emotional way.

For example, if a negotiator comes in and he looks exhausted after being up all night, it is not a good idea to put the pressure on hoping to take advantage of your counterpart at a weak moment. On the contrary, suggest things get put on hold for a while. Tell him everyone could do with a few hours sleep, says Barnes. Because when people are tired they may react in a way that poisons the relationship between the two sides.

However, no matter how much experience you have you can’t always know how things are going to turn out. There have been negotiations that Barnes expected would be over quickly that dragged on and on and conversely he’s seen the union put numbers on the table that were better than he was going to ask for.

Andrew Wainwright
Former president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association

Labour relations at Halifax’s Dalhousie University have been less than friendly in recent years. There have been two strikes in four years, and the last only ended earlier this year when a mediator was called in.

“Negotiations are about compromise. They are about meeting somewhere around half way,” says Andrew Wainwright, former president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association.

“In the last round the problem was that management really didn’t want to bargain,” he says.

The faculty association would put forward proposals but the management team didn’t have any authority to bargain.

“It was exceedingly frustrating,” he says. “They would have to go away and talk to the higher authorities.” They began bargaining in September of 2001 but only got an agreement when a mediator was called in the following March.

The way the administration behaved, it was clear they were intent on breaking the union, says Wainwright.

Just before the November 2001 strike vote, the university tried to go around the faculty association negotiators by sending an offer directly to the members. “That really galvanized our members because it showed (the university’s) disrespect for the collective bargaining process.” The union voted 71 per cent in favour of a strike. “People were outraged but the fact is they (the university) didn’t learn because four months later they tried again.” After a conciliator was called in, the university representatives told the faculty negotiating team they were prepared to make an offer but only if it was taken directly to the members without the union team looking at it.

During the last dispute, a major sticking point was the number of full-time faculty. In the 10 preceding years, 150 full-time faculty left without being replaced by full timers, says Wainwright.

Initially the union was demanding that all those positions be filled by full-time employees — the union called this restoration — and the continuing replacement of people who left from then on. Eventually the demand for restoration was dropped and the union asked only that anyone who left during the life of the contract would be replaced by a full-time professor, but the university refused to budge. They maintained it was their right to determine how positions would be staffed, says Wainwright.

Eventually the union got a letter of commitment, not in the collective agreement, to replace full-time people with full-time people during the life of the contract.

Wainwright believes that all along the university’s strategy was to allow a strike. The money saved from unpaid wages could then be used to offset whatever cost increases eventually arose from the new collective agreement.

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