How One AFGE Council Trimmed Years Off Its Contract Negotiations

One of AFGE’s bargaining councils has cut the time it takes to negotiate a new contract from more than six years to less than two weeks – and you can do it at your own local or council, too.

The not-so-secret technique relies on both labor and management coming to the table without any specific proposals or solutions. Instead, both sides identify issues they want to address and then work through a mediator to reach a resolution that serves everyone’s interests.

“It’s a collaborative approach supported by reaching consensus,” said Troy Tingey, president of AFGE Council 214, which represents 35,000 employees who work for the Air Force Materiel Command.

The technique is called Interest-Based Bargaining, or IBB. Here’s how it works:

Suppose there’s an issue of attendance that’s been dogging employees and managers. Under traditional bargaining, representatives from the union and management arrive at the table with specific proposals benefitting their side. The union proposes giving employees five “get out of jail free” cards, allowing them to avoid discipline for coming in up to two hours late. Management’s proposal is a zero-tolerance policy, in which every employee would be disciplined for arriving even five minutes late to work. It’s the type of issue that could result in a stalemate, adding months of costly delays to contract negotiations.

Under IBB, neither the union nor management comes to the table with any specific proposal. Instead, each side identifies why attendance is an issue. For management, it could be avoiding costly and disruptive delays. For the union, it could be accommodating young parents who are sometimes delayed unavoidably. If both sides can agree that each concern is valid, then they can more easily work on a mutually beneficial solution.

“Invariably, 80 to 90 percent of the issues are mutual. If you take care of the mutual ones, you’ll get there,” said David Martinez, a commissioner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in Albuquerque, N.M.

When Council 214’s master labor agreement came up for renewal in 2001, council leaders knew they didn’t want a repeat of the six years it took to negotiate the previous contract. So they turned to Martinez, who had previously used IBB to negotiate a supplemental agreement for Local 1592, Hill Air Force Base, where Tingey is local president.

Representatives from the council and the Air Force Material Command sat down with Martinez in August 2001. They held two days of training on the IBB process before launching into discussions on issues each side wanted to explore. By October, they had a tentative agreement to present to the bargaining unit for ratification.

The process took 21 days from start to finish – a remarkable achievement, especially as the Sept. 11 attacks occurred during the middle of negotiations.

“It was tough, but the process made it so much easier,” Martinez said.

The results were so successful that the council and agency have used IBB twice since then, negotiating new master labor agreements in 2010 and again this year. The length of negotiations has shrunk each time: it took just 8 days to reach agreement on the contract this year, down from 15 days in 2010 and 21 in 2001.

“Once you get the upper management buy-in, once you commit to the IBB process, you can’t really walk away without an agreement,” Tingey said.

Even though this year’s negotiations took less than two weeks, the parties didn’t shy away from tackling tough issues. Major changes were made to articles related to employee performance, arbitration, and official time. In all, 21 of 39 articles in the contract were opened to negotiations, and the parties addressed 77 unique interests.

“The issues don’t get easier. It just gets easier dealing with the parties,” Martinez said.

Martinez has mediated dozens of interest-based bargaining sessions during his 40-plus years in labor-management relations (23 years with the United Farm Workers of America and 20 years at FMCS), but they only represent about 10 percent of the cases he’s worked. He said there’s reluctance on both sides to trying IBB and a fear of giving up too much leverage to the other side.

“It does take discipline,” Martinez said. “You have to follow the steps of the process. You can’t be screaming and cussing. You have to tell people about your interests, not your proposals. Focus on resolving your interests. If I can focus on solutions to resolving your interests, you’re there.”

Every one of the 170 or so mediators who work at FMCS are trained in interest-based bargaining. Locals or councils can find a mediator by visiting www.fmcs.gov.


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