Interest Based Bargaining: Part 1

This fall I had the opportunity to present at the 30th conference for the Oregon Mediation Association.  In addition to getting to reconnect with friends and colleagues in Oregon and learn together with them, the conference and my workshop gave me a chance to dig into one of my professional passions, interest based bargaining (IBB). While labor negotiations may not be the thing that get most of us out of bed in the morning, for me, these negotiations and IBB specifically sparks a special excitement in me.

This post is the beginning of a series on interest based bargaining.  The pieces of the series will include:

  • My own history with interest based bargaining- and why I believe in it.
  • Pitfalls and misconceptions about interest based bargaining
  • Key components of a successful interest based approach
  • Additional considerations and tips

Interest Based Bargaining: A Backstory

My first experience with IBB came when I was working in Western Colorado and on the bargaining team for the Garfield RE-2 school district.  Having collectively suffered negotiations that brought out name calling, tears, and a contract that nobody really liked, we collectively decided to try a different approach.  Susan Sparks, a facilitator based in Broomfield, Colorado and deeply steeped in collaborative processes, traveled West to coordinate and support our efforts.  This experience with Susan and the positive outcomes in our contract that year made me a believer in structures and processes for groups, and in the power of interests to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts.

Far from the previous outcomes of mistrust, tears, and a contract that nobody liked, we ended up with a satisfying contract and a slew of additional benefits.  These included:

  • A deep understanding of each sides’ perspective, priorities, and needs
  • A sense of shared respect both for and from the other sides
  • A feeling that our needs had been validated and, in the contract, would be met to the fullest extent possible

Admittedly, we (the union) didn’t get absolutely everything we wanted.  There was still contract language that made us squirm and the salary and benefit packages we ended with could have still used improvement.  That said, the contract language and compensation were indeed all improved through the process.  It was easy to explain the progress we had made to our membership and the contract was ratified without delay. Even better, following this process, it felt like we were now all pulling together towards the same goals: attracting and retaining the best staff possible to provide the best learning experiences for our students every day.

Thanks to this experience and the transformational nature of our process, I eventually enrolled in the Conflict and Dispute Resolution Master’s Program at the University of Oregon School of Law.  In this program I learned more of the behind the scenes skills and structures that make collaborative problem solving work.  I honed my own skills as a mediator and facilitator and felt well prepared to support others with this type of work.  With my degree in hand, with Susan’s ongoing mentoring, and thanks to recommendations from UO Law Dean Michael Moffitt, I was soon facilitating contract negotiations myself and continuing to revel in the transformational potential of this process.

Interest Based Bargaining Today

Now that I stand on the “other side” in negotiations, facilitating as a neutral rather than negotiating as a participant, I continue to believe in the power of these approaches.  Last spring I had the honor of supporting the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1724 and the City of Eugene, Oregon in their contract negotiations.  While their last bargaining cycle didn’t end in tears or arbitration, both sides agreed that relationships had been damaged and both sides sought a new process.  A small group of us with representatives from both sides began meeting to discuss options and plan agendas and in no time, the whole bargaining team was meeting and getting trained in interest based approaches.

Ultimately, this team completed their work in nine days with me and two additional half-day sessions which they self-facilitated.  We were able to use an interest based approach for the vast majority of issues and resorted to more traditional trade-offs for only a few remaining sticky issues.  When we concluded our work, the team left with full rounds of handshakes, hugs, and smiles.  That night, I think I was the only one crying but my tears were full of joy and pride in the team, their efforts, and the outcomes they achieved.

In post-bargaining evaluations, the team was unanimous in their support for the process and all felt like it was a significant improvement over the traditional bargaining approaches they had used in the past.  One hundred percent of them were satisfied or better than satisfied with the resulting contract and one hundred percent saw an improvement in their relationships between the union and management as a result of the process.  Even better, the team identified specific skills, gained during the bargaining process, that they will continue to use and apply in the future.  They are already incorporating aspects of our work into the future work of the Joint Labor Management Relations Committee.  You can check out other comments from the team members in the testimonials throughout my website.

Given this success, I am an even stronger believer in the power of interest based processes.  And yet… many are reluctant to try them, or worse, have tried them and abandoned them.  Digging deeper into these histories, I have learned that not all processes that use the name “interest based” are alike.  Indeed, vast differences in structure and technique produce vastly different outcomes and, sadly, have soured the reputation of the entire idea.

Up Next: Pitfalls and Misconceptions of Interest Based Bargaining

In our next post, we’ll look at the pitfalls and misconceptions that surround interest based approaches.  Indeed,  given the slew of approaches that the name IBB has come to represent and trust me, they are not all equally effective and many are flat-out wastes of time. Stay tuned to see if your understanding of IBB may be built on one of these and  avoid those pitfalls in the future.

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