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The Dynamics of Union and Employer Relations in the US (Part V)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

(Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material written for APUS classes.)

This is the fifth article in a 10-part series on the dynamics of union and employer relations in the United States.

In the fourth part, we looked at some of the basics of the collective bargaining process and the requirements of good-faith bargaining. Here, we’ll review two negotiating tactics — distributive and integrative.

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Distributive Negotiation between an Employer and a Union with Conflicting Goals

One tactic used in employer-union negotiations is distributive negotiation. The basic underlying assumption of distributive negotiation is that the goals of each party are directly opposed to and in conflict with the goals of the other party. As such, distributive negotiation is a highly adversarial tactic insofar as negotiations are concerned.

Imagine that you are representing an employer negotiating with a union over a collective bargaining agreement. One of the main focal points of almost all such bargaining agreements is worker compensation or how much employees will earn under the union contract. This point probably isn’t the only issue to be discussed and negotiated under this comprehensive collective bargaining agreement.

However, someone who adopts a distributive perspective would look at the wage issue in isolation and set out to do battle with the opposing side on this matter alone. Naturally, employers would like to procure the services of their employees as cheaply as legally possible.

Likewise, unions and the employees they represent would like to see wages as high as the employer (and the economy in general) will tolerate. Thus, these two goals are in conflict with one another, so the bargaining strategies of both sides will involve getting the opposition to yield.

Distributive negotiation is a well-established strategy and commonly used tool. However, it is best suited to negotiating matters where there is but a single significant issue that needs to be negotiated.

Integrative Negotiation: A Mutual Effort to Satisfy Employer and Union

In contrast to distributive negotiation, the concept of integrative negotiation views the process as a mutual effort to collaborate and achieve a happy medium so both parties can walk away satisfied with the results of a healthy compromise.

Consider the following example. In a simple car purchase transaction, price will most likely be the dominant issue. However, when more than one issue is present — such as make and model, color, fuel efficiency, condition, warranties, and trade-in value — there are other more advantageous tools to employ.

In the auto purchase example, integrative negotiations are usually a better approach because they could drive an acceptable outcome for both the buyer and the seller.

Integrative negotiation is well-suited to union contract conversations because, again, these contracts normally involve a large number of issues to be hashed out, each of which has a unique value to each side in the negotiations.

As discussed above, union contracts almost always involve wages and compensation. However, the negotiations might also address schedules and hours, seniority, vacation time, insurance benefits, and other issues important to both sides. Therefore, the significance of any one of these issues may be quite different in the eyes of one party as compared to the other.

To take an example, the union negotiators may be keenly focused on pay and less concerned with working hours and overtime; perhaps the employees they represent are also relatively less concerned about these matters. On the other hand, also suppose that the employer is willing to pay higher wages, but is particularly interested in working hours and mandatory overtime because of production obligations.

Under such a scenario, the employer might concede a wage increase demand in exchange for stipulations on working hours and overtime requirements. Thus, both parties can walk away from the table feeling that they have “won.” They may not have achieved their preferred outcome on every issue, but the compromise that was reached was a balance that enabled both parties to prevail where it really counted for them.

But what kinds of issues are commonly negotiated in union contracts? In the next part of this series, we’ll review the two categories of collective bargaining issues: wage-and-benefit issues and everything else.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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