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How to Improve Your Approach to Collective Bargaining

“How to Improve Your Approach to Collective Bargaining”

If you’re not expecting a win-win atmosphere at your next contract negotiation session, you might investigate interest-based bargaining. It requires reshaping attitudes at all levels and building trust. The goal of this approach is preserving an ongoing relationship that benefits everyone.


In-your-face violence and resistance mark the historical relationship between unions and employers. Thanks to changes in attitude, both sides are looking at taking a "win-win" approach to collective bargaining.

With an interest-based bargaining (IBB) approach, company and union leaders concentrate on interests rather than proposals, generate alternatives consistent with their interests, and arrive at mutually acceptable contract provisions. The technique tends to make the parties more flexible and open to alternative solutions.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Positive results of interest-based bargaining.
  • How to introduce this approach to your company.


Released in October 1998, the National-Performance-Review-sponsored survey of union and management negotiators at 780 unionized companies revealed that 76.1% of union negotiators and 61.9% of management negotiators were aware of interest-based bargaining, also known as the problem-solving approach, and "win-win," mutual-gains negotiation. Among union negotiators 47.3% and among management negotiators 35.2% have tried it, and of this group 55.8% of union negotiators and 80.1% of management negotiators prefer this route. ("How Do Labor and Management View Collective Bargaining?" Monthly Labor Review, October 1998, 23+ [http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1998/10/rpt2full.htm])

"Twenty years ago, our society might have been more inclined to take sides," explains Janet Walden, president and CEO of the nonprofit California Foundation for Improvement of Employer/Employee Relations. "Today the public is more likely to say, ‘What’s wrong with you people? Can’t you get your act together? We’re all adults here so you ought to be able to work it out better than this.’"

Trust becomes the underlying foundation for success, so before you jump to the bargaining table, you must reshape attitudes from the top down. Otherwise, interest-based bargaining becomes a mere flavor-of-the-month program, quickly abandoned at the first bump.

Many companies invite professionally trained facilitators to walk them through the process — others attend team-building or joint management-union IBB training sessions aimed specifically at building interest-based bargaining relationships down the road. You may also visit similar businesses that record success with this approach, such as Harley Davidson, the American Federation of Teachers or the city of Madison, Wisconsin.

During this trust-building stage, keep two principal guidelines in mind: first, "check your assumptions" (CYA) and second, "always check before deciding" (ACBD). These mental exercises prevent you from falling victim to two common traps:

  1. Trap 1: Leadership falls in love with the idea of a collaborative relationship but doesn’t realize the impact on its affected constituencies (for example, management is accused of selling out to the union and union is seen as being in bed with management). Be certain to include each other’s members in your respective victories.
  2. Trap 2: Union leadership turns over, leading to a new regime suspicious of collaboration. Although you can’t prevent the union from electing a new leader, building collaboration into the culture by asking leaders to teach interest-based bargaining principles to people on the shop floors, desks and telephones saves you from starting at ground zero periodically. The more communication you have throughout, the stronger the results.

In the end, the goal of IBB becomes preserving an ongoing relationship that benefits everyone, rather than giving or gaining money.


O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio, endured two strikes between 1979 and 1991. Both labor and management were unhappy with the route they had taken to reach an agreement. The federal mediator saw an excellent candidate for interest-based bargaining tactics on the next sequence.

"It’s a gut-wrenching process to go from adversarial to trusting," admits Sandie Leasure, senior vice president of human resources. Management and union leadership attended a three-day off-site boot camp where they participated in self-evaluations and discussed why they felt their emotions. "You have to talk about why you don’t trust the other side now, and what would help you to be more trusting. It requires a lot of screaming and crying if you’re serious about fixing the relationship," she adds.

Next, each side had to share what they would do to make the relationship better. By the second day, the team could set objectives to address the overall atmosphere at O’Bleness. Assigning responsibility and timetables followed.

Back in Athens, each side contributed representatives to serve on a negotiation committee. Throughout the year, the group shares information and statistics on everything affecting the respective sides. At negotiation time, rather than the union asking for the moon and the hospital extending nothing, both parties jointly draft the issues they want to address. The representatives throw their concerns and interests on a topic onto a communal flip chart or chalkboard. Next, the group brainstorms how to address the issue in ways that answer these dilemmas.

"It’s not to say you don’t argue periodically, but it becomes part of the process instead of a personal exchange," Leasure reports. To date, the hospital has negotiated three three-year contracts using this process, in addition to collaborating on issues like dress codes. It no longer receives 10-day strike notices, and the sessions are shorter than the traditional wrangling. This partnership approach also eliminated the bad press that accompanies strikes.

"And you actually end up liking these people on the other side of the table — some of the union representatives are now my very favorite people," Leasure says.

DO IT [top]

  1. Ask yourself these questions: Are we satisfied with how we handle labor relations? What changes might we make? How can the union be my partner to develop this business into a world-class place for people to work? What would the union want in exchange?
  2. Approach your union-leader colleague in an informal conversation or lunch meeting to explore mutual visions. Look for areas where your ideas merge. Ask the union leader to research IBB and let you know if any facets of it would be desirable from the union perspective.
  3. Contact other companies involved in interest-based bargaining with these questions:

    "How did you start it? What actions would you skip if you could do it over?"

  4. Consider joining with the union to invite a consultant knowledgeable about IBB to attend and advise during the first IBB sessions.
  5. Plan to bargain as issues arise, leaving the table open to any issue at any time to minimize crises. Delaying negotiations to suit an annual or periodic schedule builds resentment.
  6. Use the subdivisions of your negotiating committee to solve specific problems. Have this group scout out and address the points of disagreement from start to finish.
  7. In contract negotiations, offer to negotiate noneconomic aspects individually, turning them over to compulsory arbitration if you can’t work them out.
  8. Suggest that neither side be forced to implement retroactive solutions. Freeing each side from retroactive action encourages each side to make decisions quickly so they can be implemented quickly. It also allows pre-activities, which means implementing parts of a contract as they are agreed on, instead of waiting for the entire package.



Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, second edition, by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton (Houghton Mifflin, 1991). This classic, originally published in 1971, is especially strong on building good relationships between and among negotiators.

Negotiating a Labor Contract: A Management Handbook, third edition, by Charles S. Loughran (Bureau of National Affairs, 2003) offers chapter and verse on negotiating in a traditional adversarial setting.

Internet Sites

Interest-Based Bargaining. United Faculty of Central.

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service offers schedules, reading rooms and other assistance at its Web site.

The National Labor Management Association provides additional background materials and case studies.

Labor Management Relations. U.S. Office of Personnel Management.


Glean more first-hand help from Gerard Nierenberg at the Negotiation Institute.

Article Contributors

Writer: Julie Sturgeon