Putting Collective Back into Bargaining

Article excerpt

Using Principle-Based Negotiations

Negotiating agreements with organized employees has been one of the less pleasant aspects of the local government management profession for me as a city manager. The idea that workers are on one side and management on the other always has seemed inconsistent with creating an organizational environment in which everyone is encouraged to cooperate in achieving the organization's goals.

The traditional practice whereby each side presents its demands and then spends endless hours, often beyond the expiration of the current contract, defending its position is a frustrating waste of time. The demands almost always are extremes that cannot possibly be achieved, and everyone knows it. The bargaining - anything but "collective" - goes on, often acrimoniously, with threats and personal attacks as common tactics until solutions, usually reluctant compromises, can be found. This process does not satisfy anyone because you sometimes have to give up what you previously stated was vital, which is the same as accepting a loss.

Such settlements do not foster workplace relationships that focus energy on the work. Instead, effort is spent on contract compliance issues or grievances, sometimes undermining the realization of organizational goals. Difficult contract negotiations in the public sector also do little to improve public impressions or support for the local government.

Because I have worked in two states, New York and Washington, where the process and procedures for public sector bargaining generally were mandated by the state, I know that local governments in both states have been limited in their ability to develop anything different. In 1991, I moved to Colorado and found few restraints on local government, at least when it came to collective bargaining. Although I did not expect to have to deal with this subject in my new job, the Greeley firefighters decided to petition for the right to bargain shortly after my arrival. So I had a chance to do it differently. This article relates my experience in developing an interest-focused, collective bargaining process that after three years is working well.


Greeley, which is a home-rule city, began collective bargaining with police officers several years before, authorized by a voter-approved city charter amendment. Although the experience with the police generally was good, the city council was comfortable with the status quo and did not want to approve further employee organization for the purpose of negotiating compensation and working conditions.

The firefighters already were organized and for several years had been considering a petition for recognition. Although there were no big disagreements at the time, the firefighters felt that such decisions as changes to the pension plan had been made by the council without the worker's input. They also considered a contract a safety net, should future councils seek to limit compensation or take away benefits in times of fiscal stress or competing priorities.

Soon after I arrived in Greeley, the firefighters fried a notice of their intent to petition for a vote on amending the city charter to require collective bargaining with their union. Although my experiences with collective bargaining had been less than satisfying, I did not see negotiations as something to be opposed on principle. In my judgment, however, the wording of the charter amendment had some serious problems. Consequently, I advised the firefighters that if they went forward with the amendment as drafted, I would send the council a recommendation that it be opposed.

From my study of the community political environment, it was not at all clear that opposition by the council and by me would ensure that the measure would be defeated. The firefighters had a great deal of community good will behind them, and it would be hard for the administration to argue against it because the police experience had caused no problems. …