Negotiating a Labor Contract: Finding the Style that Suits You

Foley & Lardner LLP

Day one of labor negotiations for a new labor contract. The prior three years had been uneventful, very few grievances, a good business climate, and the two negotiating committees chatted amicably as they waited for their representatives to start the meeting. The company lead negotiator spoke first, welcoming everyone, pledging to work in good faith toward a new contract. The union international representative, who was new to the relationship, spoke next. Out of the blue, he started shouting: “I just want everyone to understand we are sick and tired of the company’s bull****. We are sick and tired of getting screwed over. I mean, it is total bs. We don’t get paid s*** and the supervisors at this place are f***ed up. We are going to put a stop to it right here and right now in these negotiations.”

Okay, that wasn’t exactly expected, and the question was, “How to respond?” Take the bait and yell back? Walk out? Well, in that particular case, the company understood two things: a) the union bargaining committee wasn’t at all aligned in real life with the international representative’s anger; and b) given the context of the good overall relationship in the plant between the company and the union, the overwhelming likelihood was that the remarks by the international representative were just performance art; they were just his idea of how negotiations are supposed to work. So, the company chose to simply ignore the remarks by saying, “Thanks for the comments, let’s get started.” And from that point forward, the negotiations proceeded without a hitch toward another reasonable cost-, management-friendly contract.

This raises the question of what your style or tone should be in negotiations. Should you be low key? Should you yell and pound the table? A few thoughts:

Lots of different styles can work in negotiations. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer as to what works best. Some people yell a lot and are very effective with it. Others try yelling and come off sounding cartoonish (never a good thing in negotiations). The best advice is to be true to yourself. If your style is to be a reasonable mediator-type personality, that style can work for you in labor negotiations. And your style might change over the course of the negotiations. You might start out low key, but if your adversary continually misbehaves, you might need to adopt a more aggressive tone. Style is a means to an end. Use the style that is going to get you the best outcome.

Of course, your style will be affected to some extent by how much leverage you have in the negotiations. Negotiations can be easy if you have a lot of leverage; much tougher if you don’t. Either way, the best approach, no matter what tone you use to convey it, is to be self-assured and determined in arguing your position. As one friend said, you don’t want to arrive at negotiations waving a surrender flag. It may not always be true in politics, but in labor negotiations, where relationships matter, confident, genuine, and truthful usually works best; phony and deceptive doesn’t sell very well.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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