See Your Five and Raise You Five
Good and trustworthy communication is always important in a relationship, but especially so when delicate or diﬃcult matters need to be dealt with.
By Henk de Zoete, President, National Board
In the mid 1980s, LOCAL 53 had a strong presence in the Windsor, Ontario, residential electrical sector with some 120 members employed by about 10 contractors performing 80 to 85 percent of the work. We had a good working relationship with the contractors, which helped us get through a market downturn that saw wage adjustments and price trimming to keep business going and members employed.
When the market rebounded, the membership had a lot of pent-up demand to get back, wage wise, what had been given up. At the membership meeting to draft contract proposals, that pent-up demand resulted in a list that included an immediate $5 per hour (32 percent!) across-the-board wage increase plus large increases going forward. The journeyperson electrician rate was $15.40 per hour.
The elected bargaining committee was solidly behind the proposals. I asked some probing questions about how realistic the proposal was but was rebuffed. The order to me and the bargaining committee was clear: We need, deserve, and want this increase. Get it done!
Driving home after the meeting, I knew the wage proposal would land like a hand grenade among the contractors and destroy the good relationship we had built over the years. Negotiations would immediately deteriorate. Recovery would be long and painful, and reaching a fair settlement would take many months and lead to much animosity and bitter feelings on both sides.
So I called Paul, the chief negotiator for the contractors, to give him a heads up about the wage demand. He replied, “I understand where the membership is coming from, Henk. Leave it with me.”
At the first bargaining session, I calmly went through the local’s proposals and the members’ reasons for the large increase. During our presentation, I noticed that none of the contractors showed much emotion. Good sign, I thought.
Then Paul spoke. “We’ve discussed it and propose an immediate $5 per hour wage cut!”
Our committee exploded. “You can’t do that! We’ve already taken cuts. That’s not fair!” they all said, albeit in much more colourful language.
When things quieted down, Paul said, “Now you know how we felt when we received your $5 per hour wage increase demand.”
Both committees looked at each other, recognizing the silliness of the unreasonable proposals, and burst out laughing. After the air had cleared, negotiations started for real. Within a couple of meetings, we had an excellent new settlement.
The key to this successful resolution? Over the years, we had taken the time to get to know each other, discover our common interests and concerns, and, most importantly, follow through on commitments made. That mutual trustful relationship allowed us to cut to the heart of the matter and communicate freely about members’ wage concerns and meet their needs in bargaining without rancour and endless posturing.