Alternative-fuel vehicles were no longer just a media phenomenon. We recognized that our refinery no longer was going to make money in spite of itself. The term being competitive had now taken on a stronger meaning for us. This climate made it more urgent that we find a better way to negotiate. In this spirit, we began exploring negotiation alternatives in August 1992, seven months before the contract expired, the earliest beginning for contract discussions in the refinery's history.
During a monthly union-management communication meeting, Julie Holzer, OCAW international representative for District 2, described a process called mutual-gains bargaining, a process she had encountered in another industry. Although it sounded good, Julie expressed concern about whether or not it would work in the oil industry. The term mutual gains stuck in our minds, however. A list of reasons for the failure of past negotiations indicated some recurring problems:
- A broad scope of issues was narrowed down quickly and needlessly to one or two specific topics
- Neither side spent enough time understanding the issue
- Communications were restricted
- There was an element of surprise that kept both sides tense.
With the support of Wayne Murakami, chairman of the Workers' Committee, we began developing a mutual-gains strategy. In September, we cofacilitated a meeting between management and the Workers' Committee. During this meeting, 56 issues were listed without management or union designation. We later categorized these issues into common, work-related topics. To enhance the relationship between the union and management, and to strengthen our competitive position, we did the following:
- The union president was placed on a special day-shift assignment during the negotiations, to enhance communication and understanding of the issues.
- The natural work teams within the refinery addressed the issues within each category.
- Criteria were developed for each of the work teams to address the issues.
- We became facilitators for the process, not chief negotiators.
On the lighter side, both the union president and superintendent of HR vowed not to get haircuts until both parties had reached and signed an agreement. The haircut agreement soon became a rallying point for union members and managers.
The following criteria were developed for the work teams:
- Each team would be represented equally and would select its own representatives.
- Team members would share information freely, both inside and outside the meetings; weekly communication updates would be posted in the refinery.
- Any team needing a facilitator could have one.
- Any issue not resolved would be returned to the Workers' Committee and management for action.
- If a meeting was scheduled during off time, overtime pay would be received. If a team meeting was scheduled during work time, relief coverage would be provided. Other workers were welcome to attend any meeting, but wouldn't be compensated or relieved.
- Comprehensive minutes of each meeting would be maintained.
- The authority for agreements remained with the Workers' Committee and refinery management; team recommendations weren't binding.
- Teams followed these guidelines:
- Respect the differences in people and their experience
- Avoid confrontation or arguments
- Promote opportunities for all to contribute their ideas and ask questions
- Recognize that the answer to most questions can be found in the group
- Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know. Agree to find the answer
- Pay attention to feelings, both negative and positive
- Watch for nonverbal signals
- Be flexible
- Resist taking things personally.
For three months, seven teams, totaling 40 employees, discussed the 56 issues. The union president and the superintendent of HR attended each meeting, acting as facilitators and cheerleaders. The criteria and the group dynamics defined the issue. Teams listed concerns, developed alternatives and made recommendations.
On March 15, they completed discussions and finalized their recommendations. As expected, some issues weren't resolved but we were surprised at how few issues were left. On March 22, the Workers' Committee and refinery management signed a tentative agreement—24 days before the contract expired. On April 15, a near-unanimous union ratification vote finalized the agreement.
The early signing didn't indicate that management had an open checkbook or that the union was a pushover. On the contrary, the final agreement was similar to others found within the industry. The only difference was the process— process emphasizing communication, involvement, trust and respect—mutual-gains bargaining. The accomplishment was recognized with a haircut gift certificate for the union president and the superintendent of HR. What was more important, there was a sense of accomplishment felt by all employees—and a sense that we had strengthened our refinery's competitive position.
Personnel Journal, August 1993, Vol. 72, No. 8, p. 60.