NEW YORK NURSE: December 2008
by Mark Genovese
In Cortland County, they said the same thing in 2006.
Registered nurses and county officials wanted to have a new contract in place prior to expiration of the current one. Negotiations that year turned out to be anything but – as talks dragged on for months.
Neither side wanted a drawn-out struggle again this year. So they turned to a process called “facilitated negotiation” that had been used successfully by local school districts.
Negotiators in Cortland County saw the limitation of the common “us versus them” relationship.
“The basic goal is to win something that is presumably controlled by another,” wrote nurse researcher Kathleen O. Williams in a 2004 article in Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. “The weapon is the power of numbers. In the case of nurses, there is the overt or covert threat to economically disrupt the health care facility. Simply put, the goal is to win by defeating the opponent.”
“Will we not be better positioned to lead,” she added, “if we sit at the table with the mindset of leadership, partnership, collaboration, and collective problem ownership of the challenges facing the industry?”
Also called “interest-based” or “win-win” bargaining, facilitated negotiation is the result of work started in the late 1960s by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) and refined throughout the past four decades. The key is promoting direct and honest communication.
To help accomplish this, both teams of negotiators must take part in training classes so they can develop an understanding of the process and each other. They learn about behaviors that can prove fatal to negotiations, such as focusing on personalities instead of issues. During this phase, a mediator assesses whether the parties are capable of changing their relationship.
“We needed to make a commitment to share information and be cooperative – to be open and forthright, no hiding behind positions,” said Gaen Hooley, NYSNA labor representative. “Our mediator, Kevin Flanigan from the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, made it clear that we would not be spending time on housekeeping issues and little grammar fixes. We would be focusing on the real issues.”
So prior to the start of negotiations, Hooley and Cortland County Personnel Officer Annette Barber met to clean out old language, update implementation dates, and include new provisions that came about during the life of the agreement.
The full teams then met to exchange proposals and determine the information they needed. “This made a huge difference,” said committee member Vicky Smith. “We didn’t leave the table and wonder: ‘What are they thinking?’ and ‘Why are they saying that?’”
Actual talks began three weeks later with a goal of finishing in three days. Flanigan took part right from the start.
“Kevin frequently asked us questions to get to the heart of the matter,” said bargaining unit president Robin Brennan. “He pushed us, but in a controlled way, bringing us back to the issues when we got off track. He was sensitive when a topic was emotional and prevented the emotion from escalating.”
“Because we were provided with a framework to work within, we were well aware of what we could reasonably expect as we made requests,” added Smith. “We had an understanding of the reasoning for management’s decisions, rather than just ‘because I said so.’”
Hooley brought a laptop, printer, and projector with her, which enabled negotiators to write and modify the contract language together. As a result, they met their deadline.
“Without this process, it would have taken two months or so to finish the contract,” Brennan said. “But both sides made an effort to get things done and give this process an honest try.”
“In order to do this, there had to be a level of trust already established in our previous interactions with Cortland County,” added committee member Pam Griffith. “These negotiations, while occurring over a shorter than usual span of time, were more productive. It seemed that an environment was created that allowed for an honest exchange of information and concerns.”