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What Is the Responsibility of a Union Negotiator?

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The primary responsibility of any union negotiator is to get the best possible final contract for the people he or she represents. The ability to get a good deal at the negotiating table depends on a complicated mix of attributes, including relationship skills, strategic skills and political skills, as well as unified support from the membership.

Tough But Not Too Tough

Union negotiators and company representatives don't just meet with each other when it's time to discuss a contract and then yell and bang their fists on the table until one side backs down. The reality is both sides have to work together on many issues throughout the year. They need to be on cordial terms to the greatest extent possible if they want to be productive. Union negotiators need to know when to be tough or even confrontational, but they also need to save this type of interaction for when it's truly needed.

Bake a Bigger Pie

The worst-case scenario for a union negotiation is when the company and the union are locked in stubborn conflict and only one side can win -- like two people fighting over the last slice of pie. This type of scenario tends to lead to a strike, which can only hurt both the company and the workers. Whenever possible, union negotiators try to use a strategy called "expanding the pie." This means finding a compromise that gives both sides something extra instead of forcing both sides to give something up. For example, management wants to keep labor costs down but employees want a raise. A profit-sharing plan keeps the basic labor costs under control, but gives employees a way to make more money if they can improve profitability.

Give a Little to Get a Lot

Another way union negotiators can fulfill their basic responsibility of getting the best deal possible is to make concessions on issues the workers don't care about as much as management does in order to get concessions on issues that management doesn't care about as much as the workers do. Before sitting down to discuss a contract, the negotiator meets with the rank and file union members to find out which issues matter the most to them, which issues are of medium importance and which issues are not as important. During the actual negotiation, one of the first steps is to offer to trade concessions, giving up less important points to win the ones that matter most.

Nice But Not Too Nice

One of the biggest mistakes either side can make in a negotiation is to make an overly generous first offer. Trying to induce the other side to respond with equal generosity is often interpreted as a sign of weakness and can lead to demands for further concessions. It also tends to undercut the negotiator's political position because he or she cannot demonstrate the ability to win concessions through hard bargaining. Union negotiators and company negotiators must take great care not to make their counterparts look ineffectual, as this leads to a hardening of positions and increases the likelihood of a strike. In any labor negotiation, both sides need to fight for the interests of the side they represent without taking any disputes personally. People usually make the most effective compromises when they are secure and confident in their own position.


Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.

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