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Human Resources

Tug of war: How HR can prepare to negotiate with unions

Best practices include exercising creativity to analyzing productive and nonproductive time
University Business, October 2013

Think outside the box. The phrase is overused, but the actual practice is definitely underutilized. Yet, it still ranks among the most important tips for higher ed HR professionals who are involved in union negotiations.

Creativity is what moved negotiations forward nearly three years ago at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore., recalls Art Doherty, now HR director at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.

“The union was pushing for a higher cap [for faculty] on health insurance coverage,” he says, adding that negotiators insisted on roughly a 20 percent increase. “We created a pooling system for the school’s 65 teachers. Everyone still had the same cap but whatever money they didn’t use went into a pool, allowing others paying higher out-of-pocket costs to reduce those costs within that employee group.”

Union negotiations are nothing more than a tug of war between labor and management. One side wants what the other doesn’t have or won’t give while the other tries to slash costs to compensate for a weak economy, declining enrollment, or possibly sloppy fiscal practices. By following a variety of best practices ranging from exercising creativity to analyzing productive and nonproductive time, school leaders can avoid losing their grip and being dragged through the mud.

Setting the stage

When negotiating for specific contract language, unions tend to be more flexible, says Doherty. But that’s not the case when dealing with financial issues. “They’re like a bulldog grabbing a hold of something and don’t want to let it go,” he says.

It helps if schools don’t come out swinging. Administrators can crack open the door by explaining their position and building unity early on, says Doherty.

He points to one rainy Saturday morning negotiation. Both sides were disgruntled about issues involving unfair labor practices. Doherty says the school’s negotiators explained their position, admitted to making mistakes, then clarified the school’s direction. “We said, ‘This isn’t something we’re trying to shove down your throat. We want to get some common ground before negotiating.’”

Laying the school’s “heart and soul” on the negotiating table demonstrates good will. “Union negotiators can do one of two things—they can crush it, saying, ‘We don’t give a whatever about what you’re saying,’ or ‘We appreciate your honesty’ and move forward,” Doherty says. The approach helped both sides reach an agreement that same day.

Another idea is creating a website to update employees on negotiations. This enables those impacted by contract talks to express their approval or concerns before ratification meetings, he says.

And reviewing the existing contract six months before negotiations—article by article—can help HR negotiators identify opportunities or problems that need to be corrected. “You can’t walk into the first day [of negotiations] when exchanging proposals and have no idea what has to be done,” says Doherty.

Effective compromises

If your institution is like others, spending cuts are a fact of life. When dealing with shrinking budgets, analyze employee productivity, says Travis Gregory, chief HR officer and administrative dean of HR at Imperial Valley College in El Centro, Calif.

Start the process by considering if certain positions are needed year-round. Calculate the number of days actually worked, holidays, sick days, school closings, and vacation days.

Typically, the union argument is that administrative tasks need to be performed year-round, says Gregory, but data can help HR demonstrate that some positions can be cut back from 12 to 11 months, especially when employees take a four-week summer vacation.

During union negotiations last year, metrics helped HR reduce the months of service for preschool workers, enabling the college to reduce their base salaries, says Gregory, who has negotiated union contracts for the past six years.

Even more savings were realized by bumping up the minimum class size from 25 to 28 students, and the maximum from 40 to 45. The class cancellation size was increased from 15 to 17 students. Since teachers didn’t object, he says it really wasn’t an issue at the bargaining table.

Just make sure decision-makers are informed about key details and support HR’s strategies, otherwise, negotiations can go on and on, wearing everyone down, he says. “If your negotiation strategies are not solid and given a clear pecking order in advance by the decision makers ... negotiations will be miserable.”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer.