Take-it-or-leave-it Negotiations

Larry Price
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Wednesday - July 06, 2011
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The state Department of Education has imposed a contract proposal with a 5-percent wage reduction for teachers.

The teachers don’t like it, but federal law allows that action when a private employer believes contract talks are at an impasse.

But there is some question about applying the procedure to public-sector negotiations in Hawaii because it is uncharted territory.

How uncharted?

Hawaii State Teacher’s Association officials said last week it was exploring options on how to respond, and expressed interest in returning to the negotiating table.

The two-year contract for teachers expired last Thursday, with the state’s contract to kick in the next day.

On the surface, this looked like the governor’s office was bluffing. It’s not.

This was a well-thoughtout, calculated strategy by management. If you look at this as a game, bluffing is valuable because if one party states its final position first, there can be no exploration of ways to reach an agreement.

If the union were to use the same bargaining behavior, it would issue its own bluff as a way to gain information and make more extreme demands.

What we have here is the role of actors in negotiations.

Much of what we are witnessing is activities directed at different audiences.

The lead negotiator is performing for the management team, and team members are performing for each other and their constituencies.

The aim is to show adherence and effort toward bargaining goals and, of course, the governor seems intent on portraying himself as a “tough guy.” After all, if he can tell the all-powerful National Football League to “take it or leave it,” HSTA is small time.

Another interesting point about these types of negotiations is that they affect negotiators’ reputations after the agreement is reached.

A settlement or lack of a settlement may have greater unintended consequences on the negotiators’ future ambitions.

Said another way, how will the government’s negotiating behavior affect contract negotiations with the other public unions?

It’s legally possible for HSTA to call for a strike. It’s gone on strike before. And while that would be a great inconvenience for parents, they could extend the school year as other school districts have done.

A much bigger problem is negotiating with United Pubic Workers, which provides staff in school kitchens, maintenance and custodial services. Bluffing the UPW will be much tougher, because when the UPW goes out, it affects the airport, office buildings and can turn Oahu into one big rubbish dump in a week.

Believe it or not, there are rules on the collective bargaining process. And, yes, they vary from state to state and can change at the drop of a hat.

But there are rules that both sides usually adhere to. One of them requires parties to negotiate in good faith.

To do that, the parties must respond to each other’s demands and take no unilateral action or change the existing condition before the end of negotiations.

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