The Way Out of Another Grocery Strike

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With fears of another devastating grocery strike on the rise in Los Angeles, questions naturally arise. Why aren’t both sides more willing to negotiate and find a satisfactory solution? What could possibly bring them to agreement?

People everywhere approach conflicts with an adversarial mind-set, intending to win and make the other side lose. And people everywhere have to learn the hard lesson that in interdependent relationships, as in this case between employees and management at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons, destructive conflicts almost invariably end in both sides losing. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” as Mahatma Gandhi once observed.

Certainly, you can win battles, but that does not mean you can win wars, as the United States is learning in Iraq. Arguably, the grocery chains got a “better” deal last time around, in 2004, but it was at the cost of a bitter five-month strike, an estimated $2 billion in revenue and a serious long-term loss of market share. And the agreement, because it was unsatisfying to the other side — the members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union — only set the stage for another costly strike.

Asking who is winning in this conflict is a useless question. Either both sides “win,” in that an agreement meets their essential interests, or neither does.

I once helped mediate a bitter strike at a Kentucky coal mine. Wildcat walkouts, bomb threats, jailings, layoffs of a third of the workforce, and still the union and management would not even sit down together for fear of appearing weak. Gradually, however, patient third-party outreach and creative problem-solving brought about an agreement and a sustained improvement in the relationship between labor and management.

I have seen the same process happen on a societal scale, for instance, in Northern Ireland. The conflict there was widely regarded as intractable, but, as of this month, fierce adversaries Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are for the first time working together in government. Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, blacks and whites in South Africa — all have learned that you cannot win by defeating the other, only by sitting down together at the table to seek a larger prize.

The key in every case is to turn from face-to-face confrontation to side-by-side, hardheaded, joint problem-solving. Attack the problem, not each other. Look behind the other side’s position to its underlying interest, whether it is being able to support a family on a grocery worker’s pay or being able to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Be creative in exploring for joint gain — don’t just quarrel about a fixed pie; see if you can expand it.

Say “no” when “no” needs to be said, but in a positive and respectful way that spurs each side to look for a better “yes” — a negotiated solution. Aim for a triple win, a solution that benefits both sides as well as the larger community — the shoppers, in the case of the grocery conflict.

Often the surrounding community does little or nothing to help in the conflict, acting as if it were purely between the parties. But the community has a big stake in the outcome. Its members need to stand up and speak out, not for any particular solution but for a sensible solution that meets the basic interests of all sides. Community leaders can not only create incentives for agreement but can make it easier for the parties, which may prefer to defer to the wishes of the community than appear to give in to the other party’s demands.

If the miners and mine managers of Kentucky, and the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland, could overcome their differences and learn to work together for mutual benefit, anyone can. Even the grocery chains and the unions.

From the Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2007

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