From coast to coast and across industries, American labor unions are finding strength in numbers to fight for higher pay and increased protections amid soaring living costs and growing pay gaps.
What began as the “summer of strikes” with the Writers Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA and Starbucks picket lines has led to months of mediation at the negotiating table. Since then, Hollywood writers, UPS drivers, United Airlines pilots and aerospace manufacturing employees have all succeeded in securing higher pay.
The recent United Auto Workers and Kaiser Permanente walk-outs bring the year-to-date total to 312 strikes involving roughly 453,000 workers, up from 180 strikes and 43,700 workers just two years ago, according to the ILR Labor Action Tracker. This week, staff members from Walgreens and the Service Employees International Union are adding to that total.
While the catalysts spurring the strikes may be similar, the conversations between labor unions and companies behind closed doors are anything but. Each industry has unique challenges and objectives, adding layers of complexity to the negotiations.
Despite that, there are still plenty of evergreen negotiation principles that carry over from conversation to conversation. University of Maryland Robert H. School of Business management professors Vijaya Venkataramani and Rellie Derfler-Rozin, co-directors of the school’s “Workplace Negotiations: Unlocking Your Potential” workshop, offer the following insights to bring to the negotiating table:
It’s (almost) all in the preparation. Of the time involved in negotiations, roughly 80% should be allocated toward preparation. Adequate preparation means remembering that negotiations are not a debate, but a joint problem-solving task in which both sides try to create value together before splitting it among themselves. Have a clear aspirational goal and priorities, recognize the BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement), establish a walkaway point and map all players involved before engaging.
Think before you speak. An initial ask should encompass all issues rather than focusing on one point and be prepared to provide compelling reasons for each one. Prioritize the different issues being negotiated. Don’t just get stuck on one issue. Think holistically about how all issues are in play. For example, consider alternatives like annual bonuses, stock options, and vacation time instead of thinking only about wages. This shows flexibility and understanding of the other side’s potential constraints. Without doing this, one risks making outrageous offers that may insult the other party or conservative offers that might undercut their advantage.
Remember that cooler heads prevail. Generally, taking a break and cooling off from tenuous talks is beneficial, especially in preventing rushed emotional decisions or charged statements uttered in the heat of the moment. Parties might walk away as a way to posture to their constituents. In such situations, it is also helpful to help the other party save face by providing an opening or opportunity to return to the table, such as making a token concession. One might consider changing the players or the chief negotiators in group negotiations. This can diffuse some tension or “bad blood” and provide a clean slate for a restart.
Establish lines of communication. In the case of UAW, union member surveys suggest one of the top issues is the importance of communication – not only to know what’s going on but also having an effective system to give input and have meaningful dialogue with everyone in the union. Actual details of bargaining sessions are generally kept private for valid reasons. However, without trust and effective internal communication, this secrecy may create suspicion and the appearance of not engaging with the membership. That necessitates a delicate balance between the goal of meaningful negotiation sessions with employers and effective communication with union members. It would also be helpful for unions to diversify the communication channels they use to communicate with members.
Seek out “win-win” opportunities. Try incorporating relatively costless issues valuable to the other side as a “sweetener” to help seal the deal. That requires thinking creatively about time and risk. Maybe the other side cannot concede its position on an issue at that given time, but processes and conditions can be established to resolve it later. For example, both sides can create a contingency contract stating that certain raises or benefits can be awarded if specific benchmarks are met. Such contingency incentivizes employees to perform at or above the established metrics and is an appropriate risk-sharing mechanism.
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