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

By Grande Lum and Monica Christie

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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
  • (2) working through differences in a constructive manner.

How much the parties like each other does not matter; how well the parties work with their commonalties and through their differences to achieve their goals is critical.

The actions individuals must undertake to create a good working relationship are specific to the context in which negotiate. We distinguish four categories: a) the relationships among the leaders; b) the relationships among the bargainers; c) the relationships between bargainers and key stakeholders; and d) the relationships between bargainers and facilitators.

A. Between Leaders: Establishing a United Front.

The Danger: Leaders can undermine collaboration by publicly attacking each other, by modeling and rewarding adversarial behavior, by lacking vision or direction, and by not focusing on the big picture.

The hard work done by the leaders in San Diego on improving their own working relationships was an essential springboard to the success of the negotiations. It is difficult work because leaders are often most directly implicated and affected by past acrimony. While the argument that leaders must take the first step seems straightforward, it is not always clear what actions leaders can take to create constructive working relationships.

San Diego leaders took some effective actions:

Timely and Strategic Communication. Immediately after the 1996 strike settled, Union President Marc Knapp and Superintendent Bertha Pendleton contacted each other. The school board, led by President Ron Ottinger, knew that producing a different result meant taking dramatic action. All recognized working together was the only way to change the atmosphere, allow productive work on school sites and lay the foundation among labor and management for less acrimonious and damaging future contract negotiations.

Strong and Consistent Signals. The San Diego leaders sent strong signals to the community that they intended to work together, and expected others to work together as well. They stood and spoke together at public forums. They refrained from undercutting each other. Union and management jointly brought together nearly every principal and union representative in the entire school district to discuss the recent history and involve them in creating a community vision. In addition, the group learned and practiced collaboration techniques. Leadership in San Diego successfully sent a consistent message that collaboration, not adversarial relationships, was desired at the school sites.

Staying the Course through Adverse Situations. Throughout the contract negotiations leaders on both sides refrained from publicly attacking one another. At times, this proved difficult. While the contract negotiations were going on, a different union-management project backfired, and the union president was furious. Normally, he would have penned an inflammatory letter to the newspaper that blasted the management and rallied his troops. However, he had made a commitment to hold back on public attacks while bargaining was in session. However tempted, he kept his word, and the talks continued.

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Adversaries to Allies: Lessons from the San Diego Schools Contract Negotiations By Grande Lum and Monica Christie

Copyright 2002 Grande Lum and Monica Christie
Copyright © 2015 The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  June-July 2015