Negotiating Vs. Bargaining

Larry Price
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Wednesday - December 23, 2009
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The latest word on the talks going on between the state and the HSTA insinuates that all the discussion about how to replace furlough days with planning days isn’t going that well.

There are a couple of good reasons for that. First, the state doesn’t have any money to give to the teachers’ union, and second, both sides have confused the public with the definitions of “negotiation” and “bargaining.”

For most people, negotiation and bargaining mean the same thing, but using the words that way confuses everyone because bargaining is competitive and negotiation refers to win-win situations - both sides trying to find a mutually acceptable solution to a complex problem.

So where are we now and what can the taxpayers expect?


Many people assume that the heart of any negotiation is a “give and take” process used to arrive at an agreement. What has happened is many of the important factors do not occur during a negotiation, they occur before the negotiation begins, and this is when the context around the negotiation is shaped. The nature of a successful negotiation is a tool for managing conflict.

As a teaching tool, the current turmoil in the state’s negotiation with the HSTA is a classic that shows three insights, which should serve other negotiations with our public unions.

First, one side has experienced negotiators, while the others are rookies to the game.

A good example is the HSTA’s bobbling of the random drug testing they overwhelming ratified, only to withdraw, with the encouragement of the ACLU, followed by a lawsuit that is still waiting to be judged.

Second is the role of the media - television, radio, newspapers and the Internet - that are supposed to report on the actual negotiations.

The third insight is the wealth of social science research that has been conducted on the numerous aspects of negotiations.

I’m not going to write about this subject again, because it’s an impending disaster, and what’s happening has become part of the next gubernatorial election. Rather, I will summarize what we have to this point, which suggests we are in a negotiation, and not bargaining, as the public has been led to believe.

The major characteristics are all present:

1) We have two or more parties involved.

2) There is a conflict of needs and desires between both parties: One side does-n’t have any money, and the other side wants more revenue to share.

3) They are negotiating by choice. If the situation is so bad, then declare an impasse and let the arbitrators handle the binding decision. For the other public unions involved, if the situation is unbearable, they can strike.

4) In negotiation there is supposed to be a “give and take” process until they arrive at middle ground.

5) The groups involved prefer to negotiate and search for agreement rather than to fight openly and take their dispute to a higher authority to resolve it. In this area of negotiations, there are no clear-cut rules laid down by law.

6) The one characteristic that is not in place is that a successful negotiation involves the management of tangibles. In this case, it would be the price of the terms of agreement and a resolution of the intangibles. The intangibles here answer the puzzle. The intangibles are the need to “win,” beat the other party, avoid losing, the need to “look good” to the people you represent, the need to appear “fair” or “honorable.”

So, we are not observing a bargaining session because one side has money, and the other doesn’t have anything to bargain with. The evidence shows that when intangibles dominate negotiations, it creates a major problem, which is where we are right now.

Don’t expect anything exceptional to come out of the current talks. There probably won’t be any real progress until after the Legislature comes back into session.

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