Can We Bargain—Amicably? A Primer on Interest-Based Bargaining

When you consider the phrase “collective bargaining,” what comes to mind? Perhaps one pictures a large table, or perhaps four tables arranged to form a square. In either case, one probably imagines chairs on each side of the table and, in those chairs, management representatives on one side and employee representatives and the union negotiators on the other. They stare at each other as each side waits for the other to say something. Since bargaining protocol dictates that the employees open the discussion, the chief union negotiator presents the employee position (or demands) for the next contract. The chief negotiator for management will either present management’s position or simply receive the employee “demands” and promise response and management’s positions at a later time. Welcome to the world of traditional, positional bargaining.

In positional bargaining, both sides enter bargaining with their positions defined.  For example, labor might enter giving their positions as a 6 percent salary increase per year, fully paid healthcare and no layoffs. These positions are laid out in the opening statements. Management might respond with the following positions: a 2 percent pay raise in year 1 of the contract and 1% in year two, a healthcare plan in which workers pay half the premiums and a two-tiered wage system.

Year after year, labor and management come together, talk, fight and, sometimes after a lengthy and bitter strike, finally negotiate a contract. If they’re lucky, it doesn’t take too long to negotiate a deal; if they aren’t, negotiations can go on and on, even up to one year with the employees working without a contract.

There is the possibility of a better way, but both labor and management must want it and commit to it. Another method of collective bargaining waits in the wings for those who will make this commitment. It is known by many names; the name most often used is interest-based bargaining, or IBB. It is also known as: integrative bargaining, non-adversarial bargaining, mutual-gains bargaining, principled bargaining, consensus-based bargaining and win-win bargaining.

What is this interest-based bargaining? Perhaps the best way to begin is to explain what interest-based bargaining is not. It is not competition; it is not demanding; it is not distrustful; it is not positional. Interest-based bargaining is a process that requires commitment; at its very core, it requires that each participant respect others and their views. Interest-based bargaining requires brainstorming, discussion, exploration and willingness to seek a hidden solution. It requires the participants to change their thinking processes and to listen, really listen, to their colleagues and counterparts. Above all, interest-based bargaining requires absolute trust in their negotiating partners and their counterparts. Interest-based bargaining, clearly, is labor intensive, but many report that the results of IBB are well worth the effort. Many who employ IBB find that contracts are negotiated in less time; the agreements are indeed win-win for both labor and management; and each side understands the other’s point of view.

How does IBB work? Before the negotiators can begin there are four principles to which everyone must agree: separate the people from the problem; focus on interests, not positions; generate many and varied possible solutions before deciding; base the results on objective criteria.

After all agree to uphold the above principles, labor and management begin negotiation. IBB negotiation is organized into five phases:

  1. Preparation
  2. Opening
  3. Exploration
  4. Focus
  5. Agreement

Preparation, also known as phase I, requires both labor and management negotiators to learn about interest-based bargaining. They will probably need workshops and classes to learn how the process works, especially if they have ever participated in traditional bargaining. Once the training is complete, both sides must explain the process to their respective internal constituencies. Each constituency might oppose the process, resulting in the immediate end to it. Other might suggest that the process continue, but only until the negotiators know what the other side wants. However, if all goes well and each constituency assents to it, it is time to meet and begin the process.

During opening, known as phase II, each side takes turns framing the discussion. There are no positions given in the opening statements, just the issues, or problems, each side wishes to discuss. Once these issues are broached, negotiators immediately begin phase III, exploration. Exploration is actually a feature of both traditional and interest-based bargaining. The difference is in the number of people involved. In a traditional bargaining setting, the two chief negotiators meet in private and discuss possible options for the settlement. Exploration during interest-based bargaining is just the opposite; it is a real brainstorming session devoted to listing options to the issues presented in the opening. The facilitator for the session will list the ideas for use at a later time. The brainstorming session will yield many, many possible solutions and variants to each of them. The exploration phase of interest-based bargaining does not aim to reach a compromise; rather, it attempts to create something new by defining a problem and proposing solutions to it.

Phase IV, focus, begins when bargaining teams acknowledge that exploration has been exhausted and then turn to the solutions generated by phase III. Breakout teams are formed with negotiators from both sides, and these teams will probe the solutions to one or more problems. There will be much discussion and considerable “what if” speculation. This can be either easy or difficult, depending upon the mandates originally given by the constituencies. If the mandate is not positional, then the process can come to full flower; if the mandate is more positional, there is a risk that one or both sets of negotiators will try to keep the focus on one specific solution. The phase IV focus discussions will inevitably give real shape to the process or show the limitations of a superficial acceptance of interest-based bargaining.

Once the solutions have been vetted for usefulness, it is time to launch phase V, the process of crafting the final agreement. If the process has been genuine the eventual agreement will be a true win-win contract. There are challenges, however. The first is actually crafting the agreement, which is built on the solutions accepted during focusing; the second challenge can be convincing both constituencies that the agreement is indeed the best one possible. That can be daunting, but with good will and correct management of the bargaining process, both labor and management can succeed. The final aspect of phase V, agreement, is the foreshadowing of contract administration following adoption. If the process has been truly interest-based, contract administration should be fairly simple because, during the focus phase, the negotiators will have discussed each possible scenario and prepared a reaction to it.

That, in a nutshell, is the outline of interest-based bargaining. Interest-based bargaining is not simple, but it can yield remarkable results. I have chosen several case studies that describe the process well and lead to greater understanding of it.

1. La Mesa/Spring Valley School District and the La Mesa/Spring Valley Teachers’ Association

La Mesa/Spring Valley School District and the La Mesa/Spring Valley Teachers’ Association tried interest-based bargaining as a solution to a stalemate between teachers, who proposed a three percent pay raise, and the district, which maintained that the budget did not allow for that large of a pay increase.  After training, the District and the Association negotiators began the interest-based bargaining process. During the process, the negotiators began to trust one another and probed more deeply either side’s positions. Finally, negotiators uncovered the cause of the three percent request: teachers were having trouble paying for their child care. Discussion and brainstorming produced the final contract: a two percent raise for all district personnel, not just teachers, and a commitment from the District to fund a child care co-op.

2. Chattanooga School District and the Chattanooga Teachers Association

In Chattanooga, early discussions in 1992 produced nothing but animosity. However, the District hired a new negotiator who had never used the positional bargaining process and was the leader in the move to interest-based bargaining. Both sides attended a training session on interest-based bargaining presented by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). Once the bargaining sessions began, the FMCS representatives attended each session ensuring that everyone stayed on task. The final result was a contract with a six percent raise, a twenty-five percent raise in life-insurance coverage, intercoms in the schools by 1996 and a bigger role for teachers in the administration of some programs. Both sides have formed an award-winning partnership. A bargaining specialist from the Chattanooga Teachers Association reminds the reader that moving to interest-based bargaining is more than an attitude adjustment. There must be a strong local and management team in place and everyone must be involved in the process. Finally, everyone must remember that it is still bargaining.

3. Kaiser Permanente Hospitals and Medical Centers and the coalition of Kaiser Permanente unions

Interest-based bargaining between Kaiser Permanente Hospitals and Medical Centers and the coalition of Kaiser Permanente unions began well enough. Both teams were well-versed in the process and all constituencies had agreed to it. Bargaining was moving along well when the negotiators hit a snag. Some of the KP managers did not agree with the monetary settlement and wanted to negotiate the monetary section of the contract themselves. Some of the managers were so intransigent that the CEO was informed and called to decide the issue. After listening to both the managers and the negotiating teams, he decided that Kaiser Permanente would continue the interest-based negotiations to their conclusion. He stated that the labor peace the first negotiations brought was too valuable to lose. In his decision, he also asked the negotiating teams to consider the positions of the dissenting managers. The bargaining teams returned to the table and crafted a settlement that everyone endorsed, including the original dissenting managers. Issues with the use of sick leave were solved, and the salary settlement accounted for differences in the cost of living throughout the United States.

4. Ramsey County, Minnesota, and AFSCME

One of the most successful sets of negotiations in the literature involves interest-based bargaining in the public sector (Brainerd 1998, 51-68). Ramsey County, Minnesota, and its eight AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) bargaining units had a history of bad labor-management relations, which finally culminated in a bitter strike in 1990. Following that strike, Ramsey County contracted out contract negotiations but kept the other functions of contract management in house until 1996. By that time, labor-management relations had become much more civil. Because of the new relations, the Executive Director of AFSCME Council 14 and the County Director of Personnel met in 1995 to discuss the upcoming contract negotiations in 1996. The discussion centered on whether to continue contracting out the negotiations or to use a new bargaining model and bring them back in house. They eventually decided to bring the negotiations back in house and used the new interest-based bargaining model. They presented three options to the Ramsey County Board, which chose the option to bring all labor relations functions back home. Thus began a truly bold move in county labor relations.

Once the County Board decided to conduct the contract negotiations in house and use interest-based bargaining, union and management representatives began the planning process. Both the management and union negotiators attended sessions on interest-based bargaining. Closer to the start of negotiations, the Minnesota Office of Dispute Resolution presented intensive training on team-building and communications, paid for by the County. All participants were given a copy of the book “Getting to Yes” (Fisher et al. 1991), which gave the background information on the process. The training process concluded with a one-day follow-up session.

With the follow-up session complete, the process began. Both AFSCME and County constituents developed their separate issues which were then addressed during the bargaining sessions. The team then discussed the issues and resulting concerns. For instance, the employees needed compensation that would allow them to maintain purchasing power in spite of increases in the cost of living; the managers needed to keep costs low and be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. During brainstorming, the team brought forward seven hundred fifty possible solutions to all the issues except compensation. The teams were then divided into sub-committees composed of management and labor representatives, each working on one issue. During this focus phase of the negotiations, each sub-committee agreed upon a solution to its issue. Finally, there was agreement on compensation by delaying the wage increases, thereby providing flexibility for raises and the time to find the requisite revenue. At this point the final contracts were crafted and presented to the entire bargaining team and to the County Board of Commissioners for ratification. The contracts were ratified and, at the request of AFSCME, the contract ran for three years. The final step was an action plan that addressed further issues through a joint labor-management committee (Brainerd 1998, 51-68).

5. Camden County Library System

The fifth case study is a presentation by Karen Avenik and Nan Rosenthal of the Camden County (NJ) Library System, given at the 2000 Public Library Association Conference (Public Library Association 2000). Avenik and Rosenthal gave their audience members a series of exercises designed to introduce them to the process of interest-based bargaining. During the session, Avenik and Rosenthal commented that the Camden County Library System had used interest-based bargaining for four contract periods and would continue to do so. They reported on the negotiations for a request for mileage reimbursement for conferences. Some librarians at the Camden County System requested mileage reimbursement for using their personal cars to attend conferences.  With that as the start, they began to list all the possible means of getting to and from conferences and listed the following: the system could buy a van, people could carpool or they could take a bus. Other negotiators researched the impacts of mileage reimbursement, and discovered that the Internal Revenue Service might consider it taxable income. After further discussion, the negotiators decided that mileage reimbursement was not the solution they had expected and decided to carpool or, if possible, use public transit.

Avenik and Rosenthal also detailed how the use of interest-based bargaining solved a public relations problem. One of the Camden County branches had just opened and would not participate in the System’s Interlibrary Loan (ILL) program. If a patron wished to borrow material from this particular branch, he would have to come to the branch to check it out. As expected, this policy resulted in disgruntled staff and disgruntled patrons. After discussions, the branch agreed to participate in the ILL program, and funding was increased to acquire more materials for other branches which decreased the necessity for ILL transactions. Avenik and Rosenthal are advocates for interest-based bargaining. They admit that it is not necessarily easier nor is it a magic bullet, but it does produce bargaining with less stress, less conflict and fewer arguments. It produces good contracts and, as importantly, good working relationships.

Is interest-based bargaining delivering all that its proponents claim it will? Is there any objective evidence that the process is worth the effort that it requires? Anecdotal evidence suggests that IBB is worth the effort.  Objective evidence may be found in an article by Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Thomas Kochan and John Calhoun Wells (2001). In 1993, then-President Clinton directed all federal agencies to conduct a National Performance Review to assess the needs of agency customers and to determine how well they served their clientele. For its review, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) interviewed a sampling of union and management representatives from 1050 contracts in the FMCS database. The survey addressed varied areas of labor relations, but Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Kochan and Wells analyzed the responses to the questions regarding interest-based bargaining. Their article suggests that more union chief negotiators are familiar with and have used IBB than management negotiators. Their conclusion was that there is no specific answer. Some negotiators prefer it, some do not. However, they also said that there are many factors which might make the survey response data questionable. Was the process conducted properly, or did one side use the process as part of a power play? Is the data colored by a generational and/or gender gap? How are the resulting contracts perceived by labor and management?

Given that the best evidence for the success of interest-based bargaining is anecdotal, I conclude that IBB, properly executed, may lead to exceptional collective bargaining agreements. It works in both the public and private sectors, and it can work in libraries. Interest-based bargaining can work anywhere there is underlying commitment and trust. If an organization lacks commitment and trust, the organization’s culture must change and a new culture take root before the negotiating teams can even attempt interest-based bargaining. Organizational change will most likely be a complicated process, each side having to prove that it means what it says. One way, of course, to establish trust is for both sides to abide by, and not undermine, the contract already in place. Is the process worth it? That decision rests with each library, government or company that tries it; but if contracts are negotiated before expiration dates, labor and management come to really understand each other and work as a team, and there is less stress and less animosity, then the organization is better off than it was before attempting interest-based bargaining.

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