Magazine article Dispute Resolution Journal

Labor Negotiations and the International Arena

Magazine article Dispute Resolution Journal

Labor Negotiations and the International Arena

Article excerpt

In the following article, Ira Lobel and Brian Lobel compare and contrast some of the basic rules of labor relations to those of international relations. They show that many of the lessons that have been learned in the labor field can be transferred to the international arena. At the very least, they feel it is important to recognize and identify the similarities and differences between the two areas, in the hope that this may serve to increase the potential for success in international negotiations.

One of the outgrowths of September 11 has been a renewed interest in international relations and international negotiations. As we are engaged in a multifaceted effort to control terrorism and to bring peace to the Middle East, it may be helpful to identify some of the similarities and differences between these types of international negotiations and other negotiations.

This article aims to draw comparisons between labor and international negotiations. Many of the lessons negotiators and mediators have learned over the years in labor relations have yet to be learned in the international arena. Others simply may not be applicable.

Power, Timing, and Information

It has been said that the dynamics of labor relations is governed by three elements: power or leverage of the parties; timing; and available information. During the course of a labor dispute, the decision-making process can be modified by changes in any one or all three of these elements.


The ability and desire to exert power and/or leverage is an obvious dynamic that takes place in both the international and labor arenas. In the labor field, the ability to strike, or to withstand a strike, is an obvious catalyst to the outcome of any negotiation. Involved in this dynamic are practical details such as, the ability to continue operating, the ability to hire replacement workers, the ability to affect customers, etc. All of these elements affect each side's ability to force its will on the other side. Similarly, in the international arena, the ability to wage war, sway public opinion, garner the support of the populace, are among many factors that affect the power of each side. Ultimately, the power position of each side will depend on one's ability to convince the other side that it "means business." Deterrence through nuclear capacity and independence through economic supremacy are direct results of countries proving their ability to remain powerful states.


The timing of negotiations can affect the outcome. A deadline will generally encourage both sides to make hard decisions. Absent a deadline, parties often delay or fail to make a decision. Labor relations textbooks often describe an all-night negotiating session on the eve of a strike. While the parties could easily reach a decision earlier, they often need the pressure of a deadline to make difficult decisions. Similarly, a contract that is settled several weeks before a deadline often has difficulty being ratified by a union membership. Often, a membership will believe that negotiating for several more weeks may allow them to obtain a better settlement. They will certainly believe that they could not do any worse.

One of the difficulties in the international arena is often the lack of a clear deadline. Parties have no time pressure to settle a dispute, and will only settle a violent or mutually damaging dispute if the status quo is more detrimental than an agreement would be. Unlike the parties involved in labor negotiations, countries are independent entities that can ignore the other's complaints and overtures for as long as they want, without facing a work shutdown. However, a war or international economic crisis could be seen as a sort of "strike," which keeps a nation from functioning. When it becomes too painful, physically or economically, there is a pressure from within, and from the outside, to change the status quo. Without this pressure, the countries may continue their dispute without consequence. …

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