The Negotiator Magazine

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A factor which makes collective bargaining interactions relatively unique concerns the many issues that have to be addressed. Many forms of compensation have to be discussed, including hourly wages, piecework rates, fringe benefits such as pensions and health care, and similar issues. What hours will the employees have to work, when will breaks and meal periods be scheduled? Almost any working condition of interest to employees may also have to be addressed. The expansive number of issues requires drawn-out negotiations that may go on for weeks or months, as the parties try to resolve the different topics. On the other hand, the multitude of bargaining subjects allows the parties to trade issues in ways that enable them to expand the overall pie to be divided and maximize the joint return involved. Corporations should concede issues union leaders value more for topics management officials prefer. This allows the negotiating parties to seek win-win results that satisfy the underlying interests of both sides.

The multi-factor aspects of collective bargaining interactions makes the need for thorough pre-negotiation preparation especially important. Both labor and management negotiators should sit down with the people on their respective sides before they ever meet with their opponents to decide which items need to be addressed and to determine their priorities. Which terms are essential; which are important; and which are desirable? They should decide which lower value issues they are prepared to trade for preferred terms. Which topics should they plan to raise first and which later? Most negotiators prefer to commence their interactions with the less significant subjects hoping to reach tentative agreements on these topics before they move on to more important issues. This allows them to focus initially on areas subject to joint gains, while they begin to create a psychological commitment to final accords. As they get to the more controverted topics, those terms don't seem as difficult as they would have had the parties begun their talks with these subjects. In addition, neither side wants to see their prior tentative agreements lost through a work stoppage and they both become more accommodating with respect to the controverted terms.

There will always be distributive items that both sides value. These issues generally concern monetary terms. Even in this area, however, if negotiators are willing to think outside the box and seek innovative solutions, they may be able to expand the pie and simultaneously improve their respective positions. For example, if profits have been declining, a company may offer workers a bonus instead of a pay increase. The employees get the benefit of the cash payments, but the base pay rates remain unchanged. Parties dealing with rising health costs may agree to larger deductibles and co-payments instead of higher employee premiums. Employee health care premiums are a difficult subject for union officials, since all workers see an immediate reduction in their take-home pay. On the other hand, increased deductibles and co-payments are more palatable, since workers are only affected by these considerations when they become sick. They are so relieved to have health coverage that they have less difficulty accepting the greater deductibles and co-payments.

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April 2005