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 strike.
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.
On the other hand, if one side is not trying to reach an agreement and wants the strike, Bickford can keep talks going for months.
This power is unique to mediators of the National Mediation Board, which handles airline and railroad negotiations under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act of 1926 and 1934. All other industries fall under another federal labor law and are handled by a separate federal mediation service.
Recently, the National Mediation Board has been criticized for dragging out negotiations under the act. Bickford, for example, did not recommend a release from mediation for 13 months in the current Eastern dispute, but he defends the act vociferously.
``I believe implicitly in the Railway Labor Act,'' he says. ``It's designed to protect the public from an interruption in goods and services.'' The act was set up to keep airlines and railroads operating while both sides hammer out an agreement. Transportation contracts don't expire; they simply become amendable. The parties can't strike until the mediation board releases them. Even when they are released from mediation, both sides must keep working during a 30-day cooling-off period, and the board recalls the two sides for so-called ``supermediation.''
Usually, the system works. A skillful mediator often foresees the final agreement weeks before the parties themselves see it, Bickford says. ``When I smell an agreement, I've got to have it just as bad as if I were the one who were negotiating for it.''
But if one side doesn't want an agreement, then it doesn't matter how skillful the mediator is, an agreement won't happen. In one case, the management came in with 2,000 contract changes - an unusually high number, Bickford says. Generally speaking, each side has only 100 to 150 demands in any contract negotiation.
After months of bargaining in that dispute, the sides whittled down the issues to fewer than 50, but some of the original proposals didn't change, and an agreement has still not been reached.
One of the most important criteria for mediators is their credibility with both sides. Bickford established his early on: Before becoming a federal mediator 19 years ago, he served as a national officer for a union, and later as the industrial relations vice president for a regional airline. He is one of the most senior of the board's 17 full-time mediators, and most often handles airlines.
``I have never been idle,'' he says. Last year the board canceled his leave so that he could be on 24-hour call for the Eastern dispute. Now, he's hanging around the telephone a lot, waiting for a call that Eastern and its union want to talk. Harry Bickford is still waiting.