Imagine 48 union and management representatives looking on as two facilitators with flip charts record the views and concerns of those 48 individuals. They have a problem, but they have not taken a position, and they are working toward a resolution. This sounds like a 1990s-style meeting where co-workers meet to build teams and figure out new ways to do business. But this is not just a meeting - it is public-sector collective bargaining.
The recent experience of Ramsey County and the six different bargaining units of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO Council 14 in creating a labor-management partnership for contract negotiations mirrors a new public sector trend taking place nationwide. Labor-management partnerships have attracted the attention of public sector leaders following publication in 1996 of the widely acclaimed U.S. Secretary of Labor's Task Force on Excellence in State and Local Government Through Labor Management Cooperation, Working Together for Public Service.(1) The report provides results of more than a year of extensive analysis and concludes that participation by employees and cooperation between labor and management offers local government an opportunity to improve delivery and quality of service. The report calls upon labor and management leaders to break molds and take risks in the pursuit of improved labor-management relations and better public service.
Using the Secretary of Labor's report as a guide, Ramsey County moved to introduce interest-based bargaining in efforts to improve the labor-management negotiation process and overall relations. The results of this effort have been positive and show promise to spur expanded efforts in other labor-management areas. Communication between management and bargaining units has greatly improved, the negotiation process is now more amicable and more employees now participate in evaluating options and seeking solutions to difficult labor-management issues. The process also cut down the number of grievances filed under the traditional collective bargaining model. Agreement was reached on new contracts before current agreements expired, which cut both time and costs and improved efficiency. The interest-based bargaining model also provided for more flexibility both outside and during bargaining, which allowed participants to generate options and seek out creative solutions.
The process in developing a productive interest-based bargaining approach posed many challenges and obstacles along the way. To gain a better understanding about the path taken by labor and management in Ramsey County, it is necessary to gain a historical perspective on labor-management relations and the factors that prompted the use of this new approach.
Underlying tensions developed over several years between management and AFSCME in Ramsey County. A strike in 1990, which occurred due to issues associated with medical insurance, also highlighted tensions from previous years. Following the strike, the county decided to separate labor functions into two areas. The county hired an outside negotiator to conduct negotiations, while other functions, i.e., grievances, assistance with negotiations, contract administration and labor relations training, remained with the personnel department. Relations between the county and AFSCME improved when labor negotiations were contracted out from July 1991 to June 30, 1996.
Genesis of Labor-Management Cooperation
In 1995, union and personnel representatives took action to chart a new course to take the improved labor-management relations one step further Tom Hennesey, Executive Director of AFSCME Council 14 and Richard Brainerd, Ramsey County Director of Personnel met in 1995 to discuss the bargaining process for the contract period beginning January 1997. They discussed whether to continue negotiations using the traditional adversarial approach, or to use a new model, such as interest-based bargaining, which is less adversarial and more collaborative. …