Many local governments will begin labor negotiations soon. Careful preparation is critical. Remember, some union negotiators, (like firefighters), have significant down time while at work. They are not playing Parcheesi endlessly in the dayroom—they are studying their contracts. Some also go to professional negotiation training classes—on paid time. You need to try and even the playing field by over preparing.
Here is a basic checklist of tasks to accomplish before bargaining begins. Detailed strategic ideas for use during bargaining will be the subject of other posts.
#1. Map Out Overall Strategy
You must start out with a plan. The big strategic objectives can be fleshed out before or during a closed session with the elected officials. Do you need a major reset of wage and benefit levels? Or are you simply shooting for a one year freeze.
Are there work rules or staffing rules that shackle management? Read and reread NRS 288. 150 paragraphs 3 and 5–are there things you want to do that can fit into the managment rights statute that don’t need to be negotiated?
Think hard about all of these things and come up with an overall plan. Even if you need a major reset there are two schools of thought: go for everything you can right now—this economy presents the best climate for local governments to make headway. On the other hand some folks prefer to avoid a huge battle and chip away at generous contract terms gradually over time. Local politics, your budget and staff time constraints all weigh into the equation.
How often do you want to meet? Do you expect to end up in fact finding or arbitration and therefore want to get those things scheduled as soon as possible? Are automatic wage or benefit adjustments looming? All of these points should be considered.
#2. Carefully Consider Ground Rules
Ground rules are a tool more often used in public sector bargaining and not used very much in the private sector. They can play a helpful role in setting up the mechanics/housekeeping parts of the bargaining process and maybe even include a schedule of meetings. However, ground rules setting up “confidentiality” of negotiations can really hamper the employer’s ability to keep its own employees and the public informed about what is happening, (or not happening) at the bargaining table. Moreover, ground rules containing union promises to not speak to public officials about bargaining topics are impossible to enforce and there may even be First Amendment arguments unions can make when they get caught. Here is a basic set of ground rules that should be helpful most situations—be sure to tailor them to your situation.
#3. Have the Right People at the Table
Who will be the chief negotiator? There may be a need to bring in outside help to tap expertise or where management simply cannot devote the time necessary. Sometimes there is a complicated relationship between management and the elected officials and using an outsider to do the bargaining works better. No matter who the chief negotiator is be sure someone from HR is present at the table as a resource and to take detailed notes. Having finance and folks from operations on the team, even if just behind the scenes, is critical. Outside financial experts are widely used by unions. More local government employers should consider using such an expert—to testify or just for behind the scenes input.
#4. Prepare Proposals Containing Actual Contract Language
Many employers like to start off by presenting a written list of bullet points at the first meeting. That is fine to start the discussion of concepts. But it only works if the union is willing to really talk through the concepts and those talks result in actual draft contract language being prepared, (before impasse)—even if just for further discussion.
Sadly, many times the union just rejects or ignores the bullet points. Sometimes then the employer just stops there and doesn’t propose actual contract language. Then when impasse happens the union will argue that the employer cannot offer in fact finding or arbitration a proposal that was not made at the table. There may be ways around that objection but why put yourself in that position—just get the actual proposed contract language on the table before either party has the right to declare impasse.
#5. Collect Data To Back Up the Proposals and Present Them with the Proposals
You must proceed into negotiations with the assumption that you will ultimately end up in fact finding or arbitration. The fact finder or arbitrator will consider three things: ability to pay, internal equity and external equity. How much weight will be given to each factor will depend on the circumstances.
I suggest that you collect the relevant backup data when preparing the proposals. (If you prepared your proposals without doing your homework first you may reconsider some of them when you look at the data.)
It is optimal to present the data collected to the union at the table with the proposal. The union may look at it and reconsider its position. Or it may simply fail to refute it—a fact that the fact finder or arbitrator may find significant. If the union presents data to counter yours for the first time at the hearing the fact finder or arbitrator may well eye it with suspicion. Bonus: if you have collected this data early you will keep your legal fees down later when your attorneys are preparing for fact finding and arbitration.
You can never prepare too much for negotiations. Until and unless the legislature makes big changes to NRS 288 the employer will always be behind the eight ball. Please feel free to make comments with any other ideas that may have worked for you.