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
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. …