Unions Try New Bargaining Tactics

Experts say labor-management cooperation efforts benefit both sides in dispute. LABOR

DAYS before AT&T and its unions came to terms on a new contract, Michael Maccoby was discouraged. ``We bargain in the wrong way,'' said the AT&T labor-relations consultant. ``This kind of gearing-up for big adversarial bargaining every three years is destructive to our country.''

As it turned out, the threatened strike never occurred.

On Sunday, the telecommunications giant worked out a tentative three-year agreement with its two unions. Some 160,000 union members still must vote on the contract.

But the question remains: Is there a better way to bargain? Some experts think so: It involves a flexible search for areas that allow both sides to make gains.

``The old method was a distributive bargain, sort of splitting the pie,'' says William Ury, associate director of the Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation. ``The union comes in with a hard-line position and 100 demands, knowing full well that they're at one extreme. Management comes back and says, `OK, give me all these givebacks' and they're at the other extreme. And almost like a Turkish bazaar, they harden their positions, they posture, they posture publicly, they commit themselves publicly, and gradually against the strike deadline they may reach an agreement.''

``Where it's highly structured and there are only a few issues, you can engage in positional bargaining and you essentially split the difference,'' Mr. Ury adds. But ``in today's labor-management climate, there are a lot more complicated issues on the table.''

For example, a steel company faced with fierce international competition may have to find ways around contract rules that allow only certain workers to do certain jobs. Or the union, faced with a company takeover by a hostile management, may maneuver to find another buyer. Because the United States economy is growing more slowly than it used to, better wages are no longer guaranteed.

Labor-management cooperation is ``a qualitative difference,'' says Saul Rubinstein, executive vice-president of a Princeton, N.J., consulting firm that helps unions and their employees work more cooperatively.

The domestic auto industry, for example, revamped its labor relations after deep problems in the early 1980s. General Motors and the Ford Motor Company are now often cited for their new flexible work arrangements, where managers and union members cooperate to find ways to make the company more efficient and profitable. That way, both sides win.

The payoff is that management gets a more cooperative and efficient work force, Mr. Rubinstein says. Workers buy into the plan because their work becomes more fulfilling. ``It changes the nature of their job. They [managers] are asking what I think and what I know rather than what I can do with my back and my hands,'' he says.

The cooperative efforts between AT&T and its largest union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), were supposed to be one of the success stories of the new approach. But months before the contract expired, both sides appeared to harden their positions. The company, though highly profitable, began asking for concessions, especially on employees' health-care coverage. CWA president Morton Bahr, a champion of the cooperative approach, began taking a harder, more confrontational line in his rhetoric.

A few days before the contract's expiration on Saturday midnight, a strike loomed. ``It's temporary warfare,'' union spokesman Steve Rosenthal said at the time. ``It's like the Civil War.''

Mr. Maccoby, working with management and the union on its cooperative ventures, worried that a strike would set back the cooperative relationship both sides had forged. ``It's still alive and very much a priority with the parties,'' he said. But ``the bargaining is the wild card. ... AT&T is very profitable and it's doing well and there's not this common sense of a need to change. When there's a lot of pain, change is easier.''

It's a hopeful sign that AT&T, the CWA, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers reached agreement without a strike, analysts say. The new contract increases workers' pension payments, limits the use of temporary workers, and maintains full company payment of health-care benefits. But it does force workers to pay a deductible for more medical services than in the past.

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