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Adversaries to Allies: Lessons from the San Diego Schools Contract Negotiations

Grande Lum and Monica Christie

San Diego Schools History

In 1996, relations between the San Diego Teachers Association and San Diego City Schools District were spiraling downward. There had been numerous demonstrations of anger and personal attacks. The traditional concessional bargaining process used by the union and management was at a standstill. In February, the negotiations imploded, and the situation culminated in a horrific strike.

The strike lasted five days before union and management announced a settlement. But before and during that time, emotions and hostilities had come to a head, and the psychological consequences of anger and personal attacks could not be erased with a written settlement. Parents, taxpayers, and the business community were concerned and vocal about their disgust with the situation. Parents formed a union, charges of racism occurred and people on all sides felt attacked, victimized, and hurt. Many people reported that the first few months after the strike were a horrible experience. Healing in the community had to take place; however, community leaders and members did not know how to begin.

Fast forward to April 1, 1998. Sitting together at a press conference, the union and management teams joked with each other as Superintendent Bertha Pendleton and Union President Marc Knapp proudly announced a contract settlement. Not only were all pleased with the results, but also it was the first time in the District's history the two sides agreed to a contract before the previous one had expired. Parents who had formerly been protesting loudly now stood and cheered the innovative solutions to improve teaching at the most difficult schools.

All parties praised the contract as fiscally responsible and fair. This accomplishment provides a window to the operational aspects of bitterly adversarial groups seeking to undertake the daunting tasking of achieving better outcomes AND better relationships. We will begin by examining the interconnection between the two.

The Importance Of Relationship. People often assume that a good working relationship is secondary in importance to the amount of available resources - that no matter how good a relationship is, it's not as essential as adequate money in the budget and other tangible resources. In our experience, however, we have found that it is precisely a good working relationship that allows parties to create value, especially in fiscally constrained circumstances. A good working relationship provides the collaborative spirit necessary to create the imaginative and resourceful options needed to satisfy many parties' interests. When both sides are looking at scarce resources and a dissatisfied community as a shared problem, rather than focusing their energy on attacking each other, they generate better options.

Even people who recognize the value of a good working relationship often get off on the wrong foot because they assume a good relationship is defined by pleasant interactions and good humor. While these may be indications of a good working relationship, we define a good working relationship in a negotiation this way:

It moves the negotiation forward by (1) focusing on the common good or common ground, and (2) working through differences in a constructive manner.

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