Collaborative Labor Negotiations: A Tool for Organizational Change

Presented at the International Association of Facilitators, The Art and Mastery of Facilitation - Worlds of Change, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 27 - 30, 2000


Zena D. Zumeta, J.D., The Collaborative Workplace, 330 E. Liberty, Suite 3A, Ann Arbor, MI 48104, USA: V: (734) 663-1155 F: (734) 553-0524;

Mark Kennedy, SPHR, Mott Community College, 1401 E. Court St., Flint MI 48503, USA' V: (810) 762-0695; E-mail:

Mary Ann Cockman, M.S., Michigan Education Association, 5095 Exchange Drive, Flint, MI 48507; V: (810) 733-7800; E-mail:

At Mott Community College in Flint, MI, labor relations and employee relations were extremely troubled. Then human resources, the unions and a trainer-facilitator teamed to change it into a positive, productive relationship. Their success has led to a college-wide initiative in collaborative problem solving. This article will describe the process of collaborative negotiations and the differences from adversary negotiation; the background of labor relations at Mott Community College and how labor relations changed; and what we see as the elements of collaborative labor relations which make it successful. Finally, this article will describe how the collaborative process has been used for organizational culture change.

Differences between classic adversary collective bargaining and collaborative negotiations

Classic Collective bargaining

Proposals. In classic collective bargaining, the parties bring proposals to each other in the form of changes to the contract (the collective bargaining agreement). Each side presents its proposals. Usually the other side rejects the proposals, for reasons that range from general resistance to agreeing on anything presented by the other side, to the problems the proposal will cause for that side. The proposals themselves range from changes in procedures (such as the grievance procedure) or rights (such as management rights) to economic proposals for changes in salary and benefits. If a proposal is rejected by the other side, it can be ignored, completely rejected, or a counter-proposal can be given. Often 1/3 to 2/3 of the proposals brought into negotiations are not dealt with in any meaningful way.

Spokespersons. Each side has a chief negotiator who does most of the talking. The other members of the team may show expressive body language, but only speak when asked to by the chief negotiator. Often the chief negotiator is an outsider in the workplace -- either a lawyer or labor consultant hired by one side or a union representative. The conversation is peppered with offensive and defensive potshots thrown by both sides. There is often very little listening going on. Most of the discussion is positioning. There is also very little direct communication going on. What goes on is "signaling", a complex verbal and non-verbal language which gives small signals to the other side about where there is flexibility, and what that side could agree to.

Caucus and Sidebars. The real bargaining usually goes on in caucus or in sidebars. In caucus, each side discusses the signals given by the other side, the counter-proposals to be given to the other side, and the proposals which will be dropped. Each side knows that a certain proportion of proposals will be dropped, and that each proposal kept on the table will have to be compromised. The decision to drop or compromise often takes hours of caucus time. In the meanwhile, the other side is just waiting, and often fuming or working on other things.

It is in sidebars that agreement is often reached. In early sidebars, the chief negotiators may meet in the hallway or the bar to trade information and bottom lines. Late in the negotiations the chief negotiators and sometimes one other for each side will get together away from the teams and hammer out a settlement. Each team waits anxiously to hear what is hammered out. Others may also be anxiously waiting: union bargaining councils or legislative bodies, and management teams or Board representatives. Tension is high. It is often an all-out effort at settlement, which if lost will lead to a strike. A mis-statement or misunderstanding can lead to defeat or war.

During the term of the contract. If relationships during the term of the contract have been good, classic collective bargaining often breaks down these relationships, and they have to be re-built during the term of the next contract. Discussions during the term of the contract between labor and management are often begun with grievances or disciplinary actions, leading to tension, defensiveness, and hard lines.

In collaborative negotiation, each side brings in problems and issues that need to be resolved, rather than proposals. The group talks about the needs and interests of both sides in trying to get problems resolved. All members of the team talk, and caucuses are short and few in number. In successful collaborative negotiations, the teams become individuals talking, and the group is neither seated by sides nor speaks by sides. Each person gives their own opinions, which may differ from their teammates' opinions. Decisions are made by consensus of the full group, rather than a vote or consensus by each side during caucus. Communication is direct. People are asked why they like or object to particular solutions. The group tries to work around the objections of individuals and teams. Discussion is constructive, building to an agreement everyone can live with. Potshots, name-calling, and dismissive attacks are discouraged, so that no one becomes so defensive they cannot fully participate in the problem-solving.

Agreements are made through discussion, step-by-step, issue by issue. The group alternates discussion of union and management issues. No issues are discarded without the agreement of the side that brought it. Issues that are not resolved during negotiations may be put into ongoing negotiations during the term of the contract. New issues that come up can be resolved in the ongoing negotiations instead of having to wait for the next round of bargaining.

Collaborative negotiation builds relationships. It encourages both sides to see issues from the point of view of the other side. Discussions during the term of the contract are problem-based and collaborative. Union and management try to avoid grievances and disciplinary actions through discussions and mutual interventions. The whole atmosphere of labor relations is changed from adversary to collaborative.

The Zumeta collaborative negotiation process is the classic problem solving process with a few important changes. The process insures that defensiveness is at a minimum, and cooperation is at a maximum.

It starts with a statement of the problem as brought in by either labor or management. That party is asked to bring in supporting data so that the other side understands why it is a problem, the dimensions of the problem, and how the problem manifests itself.

A problem statement is then written by both sides together. The purpose of this re-writing is to make sure that the needs and interests of both sides are taken into account in stating and then solving the problem, to make sure that the problem is being stated accurately, and to make sure that a problem, not a resolution, is being stated.

Once the problem is fully stated, information is traded freely and fully by both sides. This information includes how the problem manifests, as well as information about possible solutions to the problem. A bilateral information-gathering team is often appointed to oversee the flow of information from both sides. Often the same information is gathered from union and management sources and then compared. Discrepancies are discussed.

The parties then decide where the best place to resolve the problem is. Is it in negotiations, ongoing problem-solving, external committees or subcommittees, or elsewhere. Sometimes the resolution does not need to be part of the contract, and can simply be executed.

If the parties decide to continue solving the problem in negotiations, the group looks at as many options for resolution as can be thought of. The group or a subcommittee then decides the criteria for choosing an option and which options are worth further study. The group or subcommittee is directed to study those options in terms of what is required to implement that option, as well as reactions to that option from the constituencies.

The group then focuses on a few options and discusses the pros and cons of each option. The options are refined, and the group finally consenses on one option as an agreement. That agreement is written up in contract language and later ratified.

Role of the trainer and facilitator in collaborative negotiation

Role of the trainer

Most groups need training in the process of collaborative negotiations. This training should be done jointly, with both sides present and participating. It is important that those present be the actual negotiating teams for both sides. In addition to training in the process, training is given in consensus processes.

It is also helpful to have some team building process for the two teams to begin to meld into one group.

Finally, the trainer should assist the group in building ground rules for the new process. These ground rules include acceptable behaviors, seating arrangements, methods of presenting and solving problems, use of committees, caucuses and sidebars, meeting times and places, confidentiality, and other issues. Building the ground rules gives the group the opportunity to think about the process they want to use, and to test out their ability to come to agreements prior to the actual bargaining. It builds trust among the parties, and in the process of collaborative negotiations.

The trainer can also do training in facilitation skills, so that the group can self-facilitate if it so chooses.

Role of the facilitator

The facilitator needs to:

  • be the guardian of the process, and make sure the process is followed
  • help the parties keep to the ground rules
  • make sure that all needs and interests are surfaced and fully expressed
  • ensure the smooth functioning of the bargaining meetings and the satisfaction of the participants in the process

Background of labor relations at Mott Community College

Mott Community College had five bargaining units when collaborative negotiations were begun: faculty, lower managerial and supervisory, technical-professional, secretarial, and custodial-maintenance. A sixth has since been added for Security Personnel. These units were represented by the Michigan Education Association (MEA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

There had been a series of Human Resource (HR) directors who had come and gone. There was no trust between management and labor. The organization faced approximately one unresolved or outstanding grievance, arbitration or unfair labor practice charge per employee (over 200), many of which were two and three years old. Half of the contracts had been expired for more than a year and the other contracts were about to expire. No bargaining had commenced. The employees were angry and frustrated. Management was angry and frustrated.

Between 1994 and 1996, there were several key personnel changes, including a new HR director, Mark Kennedy; a new MEA representative, Mary Ann Cockman; a new president of the SEIU local, Mike Griffin; and changes in presidency in several of the bargaining units. These new players were all quite interested in and temperamentally better suited for collaborative negotiations than the previous incumbents.

The Decision to use collaborative negotiations

The use of collaborative negotiations at Mott occurred as the outcome of a long, evolutionary process. The idea was initially brought to the College by its labor relations consultant, who had some experience with it, and by the person who ultimately became the trainer/facilitator, Zena Zumeta. The unions got together and considered the idea and said they were in favor of it. However, it did not get off the ground at that point, because there was no strong advocate for it on the management side who could organize the process.

When Mark Kennedy was hired as HR Director in July of 1995, he was approached by the unions to see if he had any interest in proceeding with collaborative negotiations. He quickly and strongly rejected the idea, believing that it could not possibly be successful in the strained, hostile, adversarial environment of the College’s labor relations. He had successfully used a similar approach in another organization and was not hostile to the concept, but he believed could not succeed at Mott

However, one of the unions (ProTech) attempted to resolve its backlog of disputes by sitting down with the College. Both sides had attorneys representing them, since the viewpoint was that many of these disputes were headed to an external resolution forum (arbitration or public employment relations commission). The lawyers, however, clashed and no progress was made at resolving any of the disputes. The Pro Tech leadership then suggested to the HR Director that the principals attempt to resolve the disputes without the involvement of the lawyers. Although it took approximately six months, the Union and Management were able to make substantial progress and began to build a solid, trusting relationship. The Pro Tech leadership has noted that this was the first time in a long time that the parties had truly listened to one another instead of using their lawyers as surrogate warriors. Throughout this process, the Union leadership gently and persistently encouraged the HR Director to consider the use of a collaborative process in bargaining.

The College’s labor consultant, Al Luce, had also encouraged the College to consider this approach. By this time Mark Kennedy, the new HR Director, had been on the job for six months and had seen that the organizational culture was quite dysfunctional. Mary Ann Cockman, the MEA representative, suggested that perhaps this approach could help change the culture. Mark Kennedy was extremely interested in doing that. He believed the College’s culture pitted departments, divisions, and employees against one another. It was a culture of ignoring and avoiding problems, and of finger-pointing and blaming. Very little constructive problem solving was going on.

At this point, Mark Kennedy began to see possibilities for the collaborative approach. Ultimately, he adopted a long-term goal of injecting the process into the workplace itself, empowering employees and supervisors to resolve work site problems. He believed that if the organization could succeed with this approach in the labor arena, it could then be extended to the broader organization and individual work sites. But he was still cautious and doubtful. He read materials provided to him by the Union about collaborative problem solving in the labor arena and, fortuitously, attended a seminar on the topic during an annual state Society of Human Resources Managers conference.

From his reading and conference experience, he formulated a series of questions and concerns that he discussed with Zena Zumeta in a long meeting arranged by Al Luce. The concerns he raised included:

  • What the organization would need to do to buy into the idea of collaboration conceptually, behaviorally and philosophically
  • How the organization would respond to the increased number of issues that such an approach yields.
  • What the training and time commitments would be and whether the organization was prepared to accept these, particularly with the need to conduct problem solving on an ongoing basis
  • The fact that underlying this process is the need to totally share information
  • How the union groups would handle problems that crossed multiple bargaining units
  • The very nature of consensus and whether it was truly possible
  • The precise model of collaboration that Mott would utilize
  • The use of a facilitator

Following this meeting, both Union and Management agreed that broad based support of union rank and file and supervisors and managers was required before the approach could be implemented. To see if there was this support, Zena Zumeta ran meetings separately for most of the union leadership and upper management. Each listed the concerns they had about using collaborative problem solving in the environment currently at Mott, and listed behaviors that the other side would need to adopt, and behaviors they would agree to if collaborative negotiations were used. The behaviors and requirements were listed on separate flipchart sheets and signed by all present.

There was then a meeting with both sides present, and the separate lists were posted for all to see. The lists were almost identical. Both sides now felt that their concerns were understood, and that each side had committed to behaviors that were acceptable to the other side and supportive of a collaborative process. An agreement was made with four of the five collective bargaining units to proceed with training and then begin bargaining using the Zumeta Collaborative Problem Solving Process.

Elements of successful collaboration

Champions. There must be a champion for the process on each side. The champion firstly will push to have the process put into place. Without this, it is unlikely that coordination of training and facilitation for collaborative bargaining will happen. Secondly, this champion will keep the participants’ morale up when there are down times. Without this, the process can die before it is truly used.

Broader support. Eventually, there has to be support for collaborative processes beyond just the champions or the process cannot continue. The bargaining teams must buy into it, and management and union leadership must see some gains from it. It is important that collaborative processes be taught to and used by those beyond the bargaining teams at some point.

Makeup of bargaining teams. The bargaining teams need to be chosen with the goal of collaboration in mind. If the personalities on the teams are not conducive to collaboration, the irritation level in bargaining will be too high and it won’t be successful. However, it is not always possible to predict who has the right personality. We have seen many people switch from adversary to collaborative quite happily, while others have not been able to make that change. If, after bargaining has begun, it is clear that some participants cannot make the change, it may be better to take those people off the team. This must be done in some face-saving way, of course.

Paradigm shift. Both sides must be willing to look at the organization and themselves from the other side’s perspective. They must be willing to do both what is good for the organization and good for employees.

Training. The teams must have training in the process, both to help them to understand and use collaborative processes, but also to unlearn adversary processes. Team building and ground rules building should be part of the training, in order to help overcome the division between management and labor. In subsequent negotiations or ongoing negotiations, if there are new members added to the team, training should be done again.

Facilitation. Success in the process requires strong facilitation of negotiations. This can be done either with outside or internal facilitators, so long as the group supports the facilitator(s). The facilitator needs to be perceived as neutral, which is why many groups start with outside facilitation.

Concrete achievements. Each side must have proof that the process works to bring back to their constituents. Therefore, a consciousness during negotiations that neither side can be seen to have "lost" is essential. It is also important that neither side brag too much about its "wins", so that the other side doesn’t begin to doubt whether the process works for them. In successful collaborative processes, each side helps the other with the politics of bargaining.

On-going problem solving. Problem-solving and collaboration

cannot end when the contract is bargained. There needs to be a method of continuing collaboration and problem-solving for labor and management in order to avoid grievances and the buildup of hostility before the next round of negotiations. Many groups have monthly meetings of 2-4 hours each, and ratification meetings once a year for any items that need to be put into the contract.

Expanding Collaborative Problem Solving to the Broader Organization

The Human Resources Director’s long term goal had always been the expansion of the collaborative problem solving approach to the whole organization. The vision for this approach was empowerment of individual employees to work together, across departmental lines and within work groups to identify and solve problems. This goal was one held by the unions as well. Once the new approach had been successfully utilized in collective bargaining for a period of over two years, the Director and Trainer/Facilitator designed a three day training program for employees. Over a period of approximately one year, every staff member was trained in collaborative problem solving. The training program encompassed:

  • The Zumeta Collaborative Problem Solving Process
  • Defining problems
  • Personality profiling using the Carlson Personal Profile (DiSC)
  • Communication skills, including conflict management and negotiation, assertive communication, listening, and nonverbal communication
  • Effective meeting skills, including agendas, ground rules, and purposes
  • Collaboration skills including consensus and facilitation
  • Practice

Classes were purposely structured to include a diversity of employees from the various bargaining units and departments and a mix of employees and supervisors and managers. During the first class, the Director and Facilitator/Trainer witnessed two astonishing developments. First, the training resulted in strong bonding of College employees -- individuals who didn’t even know one another, or perhaps had only spoken on the phone to one another, developed strong, close relationships. Second, the employees became excited about what they had learned and committed to implementing it. The commitment to implementation was so great they a core group of employees has created an Implementation Team whose purpose is to ensure the application of the collaborative problem solving skills learned in training. It is important to note that the idea for this group sprang from the employees themselves - no manager pushed or suggested this mechanism.

The implementation committee has been in operation for only a few short months. It is currently in the process of placing our problem solving template in meeting rooms and other strategic locations throughout the College (including the inside of bathroom stalls!!!). It is implementing an Intranet site that will, among other things, celebrate the accomplishments of employees and groups who use the problem solving process successfully.

The Presenters

Mary Ann Cockman, M.S.

Mary Ann Cockman has been a Uniserv Director with the Michigan Education Association in Flint, Michigan since 1993. Before that, she was a lifelong educator at the elementary level. She served as local union President for 6 years, and also served as grievance chair, political action chair, public relations chair and treasurer. She started the local joint labor-management efforts at her local school district in Davison, Michigan and has continued to pursue them at the Michigan Education Association.

Mark Kennedy, SPHR

Mark Kennedy has been the Executive Dean for Human Resources at Mott Community College since July of 1995. His prior Human Resources experiences have been primarily in local government. He has achieved the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification from the Society of Human Resources. Since 1981, with the exception of his tenure at Mott, Mr. Kennedy has served as both the Chief Financial Officer and senior Human Resources Manager at the organizations where he has worked. He also served in the US Army with the 7th Engineer Brigade in Germany.

Zena D. Zumeta, J.D.

Zena D. Zumeta is President of Mediation Training & Consultation Institute and The Collaborative Workplace. Her background is in law, labor negotiations, and mediation as well as facilitation. She is a past President and Board member of state and national dispute resolution organizations. She has written numerous articles on mediation and facilitation, and is a nationally recognized trainer of professional mediators. She has taught and facilitated the Zumeta Collaborative Problem Solving Process.