Issues to Focus On in Bargaining, Part Two: Twelve Good Ideas That Will Enhance Your Bargaining Efforts

How can a bargaining team get a reasonable contract for a federal agency? “Be gentle with the union’s chief negotiator” (Rule 11) Here are several tips for getting through the bargaining process successfully from an experienced negotiator.

Part one shared six concepts and processes that I have found useful at the table. Here are six more, I hope you will find these helpful.

7. Work Your Preparation Constantly


A prior article went into depth on bargaining preparation and provided a worksheet to help with the effort. Once you’ve put in the effort, work the results. If you know the cost, difficulty, complexity, etc. of an issue, make sure to get that information on the table. Facts change expectations. Facts in your favor lower the union’s expectations that you’ll agree or raise their expectations about what it might cost them to get what they want. Either outcome is good.

8. Never, Never Use the Word "Negotiable" at the Table

Negotiability is best used as a lever not a hammer. Since an Agency may withhold a claim of non-negotiability up to and maybe including a visit to the Impasses Panel, it’s your tool to use. Most proposals that are non-negotiable are usually unpalatable as well.

Work the unworkability, cost or other downside. You may hint at negotiability by pointing to a Federal Labor Relations Authority or court decision. If you do so, cut and past the relevant section, highlight the offending language and rationale and give them a copy of the edited document. If the union asks the question, "Are you saying this is non-negotiable?", your answer might be, "I’ve read this decision and can see some difficulty with the language so how do we get past it?" You might even say that your lawyers are going to get heartburn over this language and so what cure con the union offer if they do. Your goal is to lower expectations not draw a request for a negotiability declaration.

Be prepared to offer a counter that you can easily live with. Remember the negotiator’s motto, "There is no counterproposal so minimal in scope or effect that I’m ashamed to offer it!"


9. Never Threaten Impasse


Similar to the above, is the advice to avoid threatening impasse. What you can do, again similar to the above, is to provide a Panel decision extract which gave the Agency what it wanted and denied the union demand on the issue the same or similar to the one you’re working.

The reason not to threaten an impasse is simple, you’ll look like a fool if the union calls you on it and lots of stuff is still on the table. They may call a mediator and ask them to come in on the basis that you’re claiming an impasse exists. The mediator should be teed up as your tool not theirs, if at all possible.

The purpose of using Panel decisions is to lower expectations. It is an effective strategy to get all the arguments on the table that the union will face in an impasse. Some may argue about this but if you’ve done a good job of showing them just how steep is the hill that they must push up the rock of their proposal up, you’ve likely succeeded in lowering their expectation of success. This is where you work your preparation hard and hopefully recognize the value of the hard work spent producing it.


10. Everything You Do Should be the Result of Prior Consideration


Say nothing, do nothing, offer nothing, react to nothing that hasn’t been carefully considered and scripted.

Unions and the true believers in mutual LMR love at all costs find this concept very unpalatable, but it really is your cookie jar. With that knowledge comes great bargaining power. It’s the hard lesson learned at I&I negotiations when the Agency has forgotten its duty to bargain in the development of some "immediately critical" initiative at the expense of bargaining leverage.

I recently heard a story from an Agency LR chief bemoaning the fact that senior management had tossed away a principal piece of leverage being reserved for term negotiations for some quick fix that political leadership just had to have done immediately. The lesson is that the "hard of thinking" will always lose out in collective bargaining. The less you plan, the worse you do.


11. Be Gentle With the Union’s Chief


Go easy on the union’s chief negotiator.

That person’s team discipline and control problems dwarf yours to an almost immeasurable degree. You think you have politics on your side. The union chiefs frequently have people at the table that lost an election to them (maybe recently and closely), vigorously oppose their bargaining plan and approach and dislike them personally. You, on the other hand, at least have a point on the top of the pyramid if things really get bad. I was a union negotiator in my youth as a teacher (during the Jurassic Era) and remember the difficulty with which the union arrived at any decision. Democracy may be the aspiration of all but it can be really messy in practice. Agency management never will assert it is the democratic institution the union claims to be.

Don’t make any personal remark. Ignore one if it comes your way. If the union has advanced one of their worst as chief, they’ll pay the inevitable price. The face you show, at least to the chief, should be professional, courteous, business-like and legal/contractual. I plan to spend some time in a future article on the face you want to show but keep in mind the face isn’t you but that of your Agency.


12. Track Promises, Do What You Promise, Call Them on It


Obviously be very careful what you promise, but deliver it if you do. If you want to drive bargaining in a certain direction, you should get commitment on when proposals or counters or information is due. Write it down and follow up. If you say you’re going to do something, do it when you say you will. This is not good manners, its smart bargaining and often produces leverage. Pressure exposes weaknesses not only in plumbing but bargaining as well.

For example, if the union says it’ll have a counter on Tuesday and doesn’t, press them on the problems they’re having. Get an idea of what’s the holdup. Frequently it’s a team disagreement. That knowledge produces leverage. Remember not to get caught in a trap of your own making.

Doing all of the above require planning and careful consideration. If you’re very new to bargaining, get help from those with experience. Almost all 12 of the suggestions made in this article can backfire if not part of an overall approach. Integrating ideas such as these can help you succeed. There is no good luck in bargaining, only good preparation.

By the way, a group of labor relations folks in the Northeast has expressed an interest in having me offer an open enrollment Advanced Bargaining course (two days) in the Fall. There will be some additional room in the class. If you are interested in attending and would like to get more information as plans firm up, please use the email form below and let me know.

As always, the views expressed above are mine alone.

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.