4 Strategies for Collective Bargaining in Today’s Economy

4 Strategies for Collective Bargaining in Today’s Economy
Labour Relations

We have entered a challenging and difficult time for collective bargaining for both employers and unions. Shortly following the great recession in 2008, both management and unions reached deals relatively quickly, everyone recognizing the dramatic economic issues the parties faced at the time. From 2008 well into 2012, there was little change. Employers tried to deal with the reality of the recession, and unions waited for the anticipated rebound, assuming it would resemble almost all recessions of the past – a difficult period, a holding pattern for a short time, followed by a return to growth in the economy and a resumption of “normal” bargaining. This time, however, that hasn’t happened. Certainly not in the way it has in the past.

The economy has, at best, rebounded to the level of “treading water”, and bargaining has not returned to anything resembling “normal” for the last 30 years. Organizations are looking for zero wage increases, looking to fund increases from savings within the agreement, and looking for amendments to benefits and pension plans as well. These are challenging and difficult issues, so how can negotiators achieve deals that can be ratified? How do union and management bargaining teams navigate these issues when the economy has stagnated? At times when government revenue is anemic, deficits are up, and private sector profits are much lower than normal? At times when unemployment is steady, but steady at a level that is over 3 percent higher than in the United States? At times when manufacturing jobs, long considered the backbone of a strong economy, have disappeared with few signs of rebounding?

Navigating a Difficult Bargaining Environment

During these times, there are some approaches to bargaining that negotiators on both sides of the table should consider when planning a bargaining strategy, approaches that may make the difference between stalemate and success:

  1. Avoid letting bargaining drag on for months, even years.
    It’s common in this type of environment for one or both parties to slow down negotiations, meet less frequently, presumably on the hope that the business environment will improve over the 12 to 24 months of bargaining and a better deal for one or both will be had. This is often counterproductive. Frustration builds within the membership, uncertainty builds for management, it can end up taking two years to agree to a deal that could have been reached far earlier, and with less frustration for all. And worse, when a deal is finally signed, bargaining starts all over again almost immediately – with parties already drained from the last two years.
  2. Separate the monetary from the non-monetary.
    While this is pretty standard advice, it is often honoured in the breach more than not. In other words, when there is money to reach a deal, the non-monetary is often given less attention than the monetary, or worse, one is simply traded for the other. In a low-growth economy, parties should truly focus on the non-monetary on their own merits, explore the reasons for cleaning up and improving language, simplify the collective agreement, and make it clearer and more workable for all. Just the fact that the parties succeeded in making changes and improvements for both members and management can make it much easier for parties to accept and sell difficult monetary agreements.
  3. Keep bargaining simple and focused on the essential issues.
    Many negotiators overload their proposals in the hope that they can be used as “traders” for movement on wages and benefits (or on other items they see as important). In reality, overloading the plate with issues that are at best a medium or low priority simply muddies the water, and makes real change harder. This is an environment when real and focused time can be brought to bear on workplace issues that have great value to members and organizations alike – use this environment to actually dig deep on the small number of important and long-standing issues. Since the monetary side is operating in a much more limited range, there should be time and energy for some of the issues that have been pushed off to the side for too long.
  4. Use a more Interest-Focused approach at the table.
    No, I did not say start using Interest Based Bargaining (IBB). IBB works for some organizations, and the more power to you. I’m referring to an approach at the table that focuses not just on the positions of each party, but on the underlying reasons and needs of each party, as an invitation to find better and more creative solutions at the table. In times of plenty, positional bargaining seems to end with solutions everyone can live with (even if it does nothing for building the union-management relationship). When times are tough, however, positional bargaining tends to entrench parties in a far more emotional way, often ending in bitter fights over very small issues. This is a Lose-Lose scenario. Keep each other honest at the table by making each party rationalize their positions, bring good data to support their views, and most importantly to challenge each other to find solutions beyond the starting positions that each party brings forward at the beginning of the process.

Overall, bargaining in difficult times is, well, difficult. But it is also the time when bargaining relationships can change for the better, where mutual collaboration to get a deal is virtually required, and the (sometimes) lost art of joint problem solving can be re-discovered. Challenge each other to get out of the trenches and work together to solve some the issues that our current environment has brought us. In this case, it takes both parties to solve these issues – there is no winner take all.  Unless it works for both parties, it works for none.


About the Author

Gary Furlong

Gary Furlong has extensive experience in labour mediation, alternative dispute resolution, negotiation, and conflict resolution.  He has delivered collective bargaining negotiation skills training for both management and union bargaining teams across Canada, bringing a strong focus of effective and collaborative skills to the table. Gary also conducts relationship building interventions to strengthen day-to-day union-management effectiveness away from bargaining. He has worked with a wide range of companies in the private sector, in the public sector with municipalities, provincial governments and the federal government, and with unions including Unifor, Teamsters, CUPE, ONA, OPSEU, and PSAC. Gary is past president of the ADR Institute of Ontario, is a Chartered Mediator (C. Med.) and holds his Master of Laws (ADR) from Osgoode Hall Law School.  Gary is the author of The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, John Wiley and Sons, 2005.

Gary Furlong is the lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Negotiation Skills and Managing Unionized Environments programs.

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