The pandemic upended many things about our lives, both in our personal lives and in our workplaces. Collective bargaining was no different. Early in the pandemic, bargaining almost ground to a halt while everyone waited to see what was going to happen; we turned our attention to remote work, vaccine mandates and accommodations. Eventually, we had agreements expiring and had to bargain. Some parties rolled agreements over with little change for a year, hoping it would be over by then. It wasn’t. We have all had to face the reality that we have to negotiate, we have to address important issues, and we have to find a way to do that.
We started bargaining virtually. Zoom, Teams and Webex became important tools, and to our surprise, agreements were reached and it worked. Somehow. It wasn’t our first choice, but we found a way.
Now, with governments everywhere reducing or removing restrictions, it appears that we’re heading back to bargaining in person. At a real table instead of a virtual one. But even if we’re planning in-person negotiations in the near future, we’re not returning to “normal” – that’s still a ways off. We will need to transition, effectively, from a flat screen to sitting across from each other, in three dimensions, for the first time in a few years.
Here are some ideas and considerations to help with that transition.
1. Plan the bargaining process, jointly, well in advance
In addition to the best practices about establishing ground rules for bargaining, such as data sharing, exchange of proposals, scope of bargaining, etc., there should be clear and detailed agreements around the health and safety of the process specific to COVID. Regardless of anyone’s views of vaccines and mask mandates, many of us have lived with some level of fear and concern of being in a room with other people. That isn’t going to disappear overnight. The more clarity everyone has about the process, how it will be run, what the safety protocols are, the more everyone can relax and focus on why we’re here – negotiating a collective agreement. Establishing the process clearly is best done jointly, and best done weeks before the parties are at the table. This should include clarity on:
- Location and layout: Where will we meet? How large will the main room be? Will we be socially distancing, and if so, how? Do we need masks for walking in the halls or into the room? How long will joint sessions be? Is there good ventilation in the rooms we’ll be using?
- Other protocols: In addition to these basic but important questions, what are the protocols we can all agree to if someone appears to have symptoms? What will happen if someone has come into contact with a person who then tests positive? What are we committing to disclose?
The more clarity all parties have around what to expect and what has been agreed, the more productive the bargaining process will be. Bargaining effectively requires focus, and only by first addressing health and safety logistics clearly and directly will everyone be able to focus on the negotiations themselves.
2. At the table, make extra effort to keep all parties engaged
To make sure everyone stays focused on the issues, each party should make sure they are engaging both their own team members, as well as the other team’s members, effectively. This can be accomplished in a number of ways:
- First, make sure your own team is paying attention and contributing. This is best done by giving each team member specific duties or activities, such as presenting information on an issue that affects their work area, responding to the other party’s presentation, and using their knowledge and expertise actively at the table. Many chief negotiators seem to live in fear of their own team participating, afraid they may say something “wrong”. We all need to get over this. Accessing the knowledge and experience of our team brings far more benefits than risks. As we sit together at a real table after so much time in isolation, this type of engagement is even more important.
- Secondly, ask both parties to commit to open discussion and dialogue on every issue. To do this, create “dialogue time” on each issue where parties agree no commitments are or can be made. Use this time for free-wheeling ideas and solutions to be put on the table without fear of committing to anything. The more open dialogue the parties can have, the more engaged everyone will be. And you’ll get far better outcomes, as well.
- Finally, take more breaks. Do not stay at the table for hours and hours at a time. Meet jointly, address and have open dialogue on a couple of issues, then break for a short time and return. This pattern of shorter joint sessions (perhaps either side of an hour) at the table, then caucus for half an hour, then back to plenary, is a good way to keep energy, focus and momentum in the negotiations. It will help everyone relax into the process, and to build and strengthen their bargaining muscles quickly.
3. Expect unusual responses
The fact is, we’re all a little bit twitchy, a bit jumpy, when it comes to suddenly working face-to-face after all this time in some form of distance and isolation. That’s normal. Our resources for social interactions are depleted. This means that someone, likely more than one person, will react out of proportion to something that happens during bargaining. They will feel the pressure and lose their temper over something, large or small. They will make an inappropriate comment. They will dig their heels in on a seemingly unimportant item. Expect this, and give everyone some of the benefit of the doubt. Instead of reacting equally over the top, take a breath.
Assume best intentions as much as you can. Stop and respectfully name what you see happening. Give them some space to reflect and think about what’s going on for them. Help them prevent the issue or behaviour from escalating. Believe me, you will also need some of that coming back the other way, too!
4. When negotiations are over, do a joint debrief with the other team
This is a best practice that successful parties do anyway, pandemic or not. But now, it takes on an added layer of importance. After a deal is reached and ratified, spend an hour or two with both bargaining teams and talk openly about what worked in the process, and what didn’t work. Discuss what took place and share perspectives.
Take the time to write this all down, capture it, so next round both parties have clear ideas on how to make the bargaining even more effective at the table. This will not only help both teams see the process from the other’s perspective, it will also improve the implementation of the deal just reached. And it will minimize negative assumptions that are often the cause of ongoing friction in the union-management relationship.
We have an amazing opportunity to take a hard look at how we have bargained in the past, and how we can actually “build bargaining back better”. We have the chance to negotiate better, to use this as a fresh start to actually improve how we bargain. We should never let a good crisis go to waste, as they say, when we have the opportunity to make this important process better all the way round.
About the Author
Gary Furlong has extensive experience in labour mediation, alternative dispute resolution, negotiation, and conflict resolution. 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. He is the author of The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, John Wiley and Sons, Second Edition 2020; the co-author of BrainFishing: A Practice Guide to Questioning Skills, FriesenPress 2018; and The Sports Playbook, Routledge, 2018. Gary has delivered collective bargaining negotiation skills training for both management and union bargaining teams, bringing a strong focus of effective and collaborative skills to both parties. Gary specializes in leading joint bargaining training for intact negotiation teams just prior to negotiations, with a focus on helping parties maximize joint gains at the table. He also conducts relationship building interventions to strengthen day-to-day union-management effectiveness away from bargaining.