By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
HARRY BICKFORD has crisscrossed the country, worked 40 hours at a stretch, and received three death threats in his career as a federal mediator. But his biggest challenge has been Eastern Airlines.
"It was the most difficult [negotiation] I've ever had," he said in a telephone interview. But he still holds out hope that after 17 months of talk, Eastern and the striking International Association of Machinists can settle their differences.
"Mediators are always optimistic. And I guess I'm an eternal optimist," Mr. Bickford says.
Mediators have to be optimistic. They walk into some of the nation's toughest contract disputes with little more than experience and a bag of tricks to forge agreements. Bickford is considered one of the best around.
Six years ago, when Eastern and the Machinists settled a very difficult contract, both negotiating teams praised Bickford and the chairman of the National Mediation Board, saying they had averted a strike.
At the crucial, final session, for example, Bickford cut off the haggling over salary scales and told both sides: "If you both don't shake hands on this, I am going to break your wrists."
"A mediator doesn't have any authority to tell the parties what they will do or not do in bargaining," he says. "He cajoles, he harasses, he attempts to coerce. He uses all the tricks of the trade to bring the parties to an agreement."
"You speak to one side and you get them in general conversation on `What if we were able to do this? What if we were able to do that?' ... if they then become interested in that, without exposing their table [formal] position, you go to the other side and start with them. ... You don't reach an agreement suddenly, write a whole agreement, and then sign it. You reach it bit, by bit, by bit."
Sometimes the effort requires a lot of innovation, Bickford says. After 32 hours of negotiations at National Airlines several years ago, one woman on the union negotiating team was so determined not to vote on the proposed contract that she pretended to faint.
Unimpressed, Bickford lay her down across four chairs and put cold compresses on her head. Then he called for a vote, telling the woman she could raise her right hand for "no" and her left hand for "yes." The woman raised her left hand. "This sounds as if I'm a beast," he says. "It really wasn't that bad."
One of the most important tools Bickford has at his disposal is the power to determine when the parties have reached an impasse.
If one side is dragging its feet at the bargaining table, but Bickford knows it wants to avoid a strike at all costs, he may threaten to request that the National Mediation Board release the parties from mediation. …