Adapted from “Negotiators: How You Can Avoid Striking Out,” first published in the December 2012 issue of Negotiation.
When a difficult negotiation such as a labor contract renegotiation looms, it can be tempting for each side to try to make unilateral decisions on certain issues because of the belief that negotiation with the other side will be a dead end. This strategy may pay off in the short term, but it’s important to factor in the long-term costs.
Take the contract negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the City of Chicago, which led to a 10-day strike.
After being elected mayor of Chicago in February 2011, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, lobbied the Illinois state legislature hard for an education-reform bill targeted at Chicago’s troubled school district that included changes to collective bargaining between the city and the CTU.
Specifically, the bill, which passed in May 2011, raised the percentage of CTU members who must vote in favor of a strike from 50% to 75%.
The new law, known as SB7, also effectively prevented the CTU from striking over issues other than teacher salaries and limited the issues that could be negotiated—leaving out class size, for instance.
The law outraged the union, which viewed it as a signal (among others) that the new mayor was aggressively anti-union.
Rumors spread that Emanuel’s long-term plan was to gradually close public schools and replace them with non-unionized charter schools.
Chicago’s Emanuel-appointed school board then further alienated CPS teachers by rescinding a promised 4% pay raise and, at the same time, upping the salaries of newly installed CPS executives.
Emanuel then began a campaign, ultimately successful, over a single education issue—his quest for a longer school day.
But instead of negotiating with the CTU, he launched negotiations with individual schools.
By this point, it had become clear to CPS teachers that Emanuel would live up to the pugnacious reputation he had earned in Washington in his dealings with them.
The union was further frustrated when the Chicago School Board delayed negotiations over the teachers’ new contract, leaving only weeks for the parties to come to agreement on a host of issues, including teacher salaries, evaluations, availability of books and other supplies, and air conditioning in schools.
On June 6, an overwhelming 90% of CTU members voted to strike, far exceeding the 75% required by the new state law. Both sides turned down the recommendation of an independent arbitrator on the issue of teacher salaries.
As thousands of CPS teachers joined picket lines across the city on September 10, Chicago parents scrambled to make arrangements for their children’s care.
Ten days later, the CTU and the school board reached an agreement that provided victories for both sides, including a longer school day and annual teacher raises.
In the CPS system, student dropout rates hover around 50%. The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund is reportedly on the verge of collapse, yet CPS teacher salaries are among the highest in the country.
A strong case can be made that dramatic reforms were and are needed to improve the quality and viability of Chicago schools.
But if one of Emanuel’s goals was to avoid a teacher strike, as suggested by his support of SB7, then his strategy of dodging and delaying negotiations with the CTU and limiting the number of issues on the table was counterproductive.
When you engage your counterpart as early as possible in the timeline of a negotiation, you demonstrate your interest in building rapport and exploring options together.
And by refusing to put limits on the number of topics under discussion, you exponentially improve the chances of discovering tradeoffs that will satisfy both parties—and head off a strike.