A Quick Look at Modified Traditional Bargaining

by Kathy Routliffe

For the first time in their histories, the five editorial units of the Chicago Newpaper Guild which have contracts with the Chicago Sun-Times Company – the Chicago Sun Times, Pioneer Press, Joliet, Waukegan and Gary  – have merged their bargaining teams into one, in an effort to create a single contract with the company.

Left to right: Members of the Guild Negotiating Committee: Guild President and Pioneer Unit Chair David Pollard, TNG International Representative Bruce Nelson and Guild Vice President and Lake County News Sun Unit Chair Judy Masterson.

The possibility of doing so is one of the sole positive outcomes of the otherwise onerous Memorandum of Understanding signed by each unit in 2009 prior to the Sun-Times’ purchase by James Tyree’s investment group.

It’s a momentous undertaking. Although success is by no means guaranteed, both the Guild and Sun-Times management have agreed to try collaborative bargaining through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in order to maximize our chances.

Left to right: Sun-Times Negotiating Committee member Meg Moore. Guild Negotiating Committee Members: Guild Treasurer and Sun-Times Vice Chair David Roeder, Gary Post Tribune Unit Chair Teresa Schultz and Joliet Herald News Unit Chair Bob Okon.

The process that FMCS mediators call “modified traditional bargaining”, or MTB,  may not be familiar to many Guild members; here’s a brief history, including some explanation of how MTB practices can help reach contract agreements.

MTB evolved in the 1990s out of the perhaps better known “interest-based bargaining” process, also known as IBB.

IBB developed in the 1980s to help bargaining sides avoid adversarial “us versus them” negotiating tactics that too often devolved into sides shouting position slogans across a table at each other.

In IBB, neither side brings prepared offer, or demands to the table. Instead, negotiators talk about issues; they work together, aided by a facilitator, to identify interests that stem from those issues and determine which are mutual and which, if not mutual, both sides can at least agree to work on. Then they brainstorm possible options in confidential sessions and craft solutions to the problems. Both sides train in IBB tactics before negotiations; learning to abandon mistrust is a key, if difficult, part of that training.

Although IBB negotiations were often successful, professional mediators realized in the late 1990s that IBB couldn’t meet the needs of all groups.

Some had too long a history of mistrust to completely embrace the collaborative process. Others were uncomfortable with IBB’s strict guidelines -insistence on complete consensus on every issue, for example, or the discouragement of sides taking time for private caucuses. Others were able to use collaboration to solve some contract issues, but couldn’t use it to solve complicated or contentious ones, including economics.

Sun-Times Negotiating Committee: From left to right – Director of Labor Relations Ted Rilea, Paul Pham (finance) and Deputy Managing Editor of News and Sports Chris De Luca. FMCS moderator Javier Ramirez and Sun-Times Negotiating Committee member Meg Moore.

Modified traditional bargaining developed to do what IBB couldn’t.

Like IBB, MTB strives to avoid adversarial negotiating tactics. Participants train and set negotiating ground rules together and agree to consensus building in a confidential atmosphere. Once they start negotiating, again often aided by a trained facilitator, they identify as many issues as possible, and try to find ways to define interests and brainstorm problem solutions.

As is also the case with IBB, MTB requires both sides to maintain a high level of confidentiality about their discussions during MTB’s collaborative phases.

“You absolutely have to have it,” FMCS Commissioner Javier Ramirez said. “As reporters, you can often see that if you’re interviewing two people about something contentious, one won’t give you the information you need until the other person leaves the room. In MTB or IBB, both sides have to be comfortable knowing that they can speak freely without having observers listen and make judgements on the process.”

Confidentiality doesn’t mean secrecy. Facilitators like Ramirez stress in training how important it is for bargaining teams to educate their constituencies – union and management – about the process, about why and when confidentiality is necessary, and about each tentative agreement. And as always, tentative agreements still must be reviewed and approved by union members before becoming final.

Despite their similarities, IBB and MTB processes are different. Most strikingly, modified traditional bargaining includes a final phase that allows the sides to return to traditional bargaining for issues both sides have collaboratively identified as too unwieldy or complicated for consensus-based problem solving.

The benefit of having started collaboratively, Ramirez said, is that both sides now know each other better, and have identified enough issues, interests and possible options to move past the blue-sky positions that nearly always start traditional contract talks.

“They can move past what we call the BS zone and go directly to the credible zone on issues, because they’ve already talked about many of those issues in a problem solving fashion,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez has been with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for more than seven years and has helped both private and public sector groups use collaborative processes. Using them requires participants to leave old combative attitudes at the door and to bring curiosity, not assumptions, to the table, he said.

“You’ve got to come in with the question ‘How do we solve this problem’ rather than the declaration of ‘I’m going to kick your butt’.”

Ted Rilea is vice-president of labor relations for the Chicago Sun-Times, and is part of the company’s negotiating team; Craig Rosenbaum is the CNG executive director and chief counsel.

Both said their respective teams saw the advantage of trying modified traditional bargaining, in part because collaborative efforts had been used between the company and some CNG units in the past to successfully handle at least a few issues.

“It was really a decision made by the committee,” Rosenbaum said Sept. 5. “When you’re trying to merge five contracts into one it’s complicated and can get messy. We thought it would be a good idea, as did former Executive Director Jerry Minkkinen.”

“Even on issues where complete consensus isn’t reached, we’ll already have gotten, hopefully, into the credible zone,” he said.

Rilea agreed: “IBB worked for us here at the Sun-Times back when we had a great many issues … This is somewhat of the same creature and it will possibly help us now.”

To learn more about modified traditional bargaining and other collaborative processes, download “Cooperative Bargaining Styles at FMCS: A Movement Towards Choices” by Carolyn Brommer, George Buckingham and Steven Loeffler. Information on MTB starts on Page 24. 

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