Federal Bargaining Endgames: Part One – How the H___ Do We Get Out of This?

Agency negotiators who lead management into an unending and apparently unendable morass are not likely to prosper. How do you open a negotiation between a union and an agency and how do you close it?

This is the first of four parts looking at what’s involved in finishing a negotiation. You may be in the middle of Impact & Implementation, Mid-Term or Term bargaining but foremost on your mind is often finishing it. There’s a great scene in a bad movie called The Agony and the Ecstasy. Charleton Heston is playing Michaelangelo, of course, and painting the Sistine Chapel. The Pope asks repeatedly, “When will you make an end to it?” Moses (oops!), Michaelangelo repeatedly replies, “When it is finished!” You may find, in many negotiations, that your management will begin to ask you, “When will you make an end to it?” as time and resources disappear into bargaining’s black hole. Your career may require a different answer than a truculent “when it is finished!”

Bargaining Closure

Negotiation can end in three ways, agreement, a settlement imposed by an outside party or the dissolution of either the Agency or the union. While you might wish for option three a lot, it is, by far, the least likely to occur. To make things easier, I’m going to stick with term negotiations in this series. Contract bargaining is usually the most complex to close so we’ll follow that process. At the end of Part Four, we’ll look at I&I and Midterm vagaries that usually change they way those processes are brought to closure.

Getting In, Getting Out

Before bargaining starts, perhaps the two most important questions needing a definitive answer are: How do we open the negotiation and how do we close it?

First timers and dilettante executives who haven’t done it before want to leap in and get to the substance of it all as if there is such a thing. When I was a schoolteacher and sitting on the other side of the bargaining table (when I became a Fed and an Agency rep, I stopped getting invited home to dinner by my Irish, New Jersey, blue collar family), the teacher’s union I was part of was considering a strike. At the meeting of the executive committee to recommend a strike vote or not, the young turks, usually unmarried and childless, wanted to teach the school administration a lesson by walking out.

A teacher union official who had seen it all told the committee that walking out was easy. He went on to add that getting people back after they had been payless for a period of time was more difficult. You had to be sure, he said, that the strike would produce a greater benefit later than a less satisfactory agreement now. If not, the elected officials that recommended the strike would be tossed from office soon after.

Of course there’s no strike in Federal labor relations but the fortunes of Agency negotiators who lead management into an unending and apparently unendable morass are not likely to prosper.

Risks and Rewards

Bargaining is the constant shaping and reshaping of expectations.

Nothing good happens very fast and the end of bargaining usually puts into sharp perspective the differing interests of the parties on unresolved issues. However exhausted you and your organization may be by the bargaining process, remember that closing is the time when most is lost or gained.

If Agency management’s position is willing to do anything to get out of a negotiation, they are sure to come out both feeling and being the loser. Woody Allen was right when he said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Smart negotiators prioritize bargaining by deciding what is essential to get, keep or avoid; what is helpful to get, keep or avoid; and what, on balance, doesn’t really matter one way or the other. When negotiations come to the point that almost all the helpful and unimportant issues are resolved and most of what’s left are the essentials, it’s time to start getting serious about the endgame. In chess, you are in the endgame after most of the pieces have been removed from the board. The same applies in bargaining. The endgame is the riskiest and perhaps the most rewarding part of bargaining for everyone. Your preparation, if done well, has led you to this point. Agencies can often choose the endgame as they have the leverage of concession. How and when it’s used can dramatically affect the endgame.

Four Essential Processes

Four discrete processes may be employed to end bargaining:

• Agreement between the parties with no outside involvement
• Agreement after mediation by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
• Agreement after mediation at the Federal Service Impasses Panel (the Panel) or by an interest arbitrator
• Imposition of disputed contract language by the Panel or an interest arbitrator

Each process has its own life. Approaches to each must be carefully considered and constructed. In succeeding articles we’ll look at how each works. Part 2 will cover closing without third party assistance. Part 3 will work through an resolution mediated by the Federal Mediationand Conciliation Service (FMCS). Part 4 will address the Panel and interest arbitrators. So please stay tuned.

I appreciate the comments and emails. Keep them coming.

Remember, the opinions expressed in these articles are mine and mine alone and don’t necessarily represent FedSmith’s or any other organizations views. When they do, thanks; when they don’t, that’s life.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.