News & Events

More collective, less bargaining

More collective, less bargaining

IF THERE’S one thing that’s broken in Boston, it’s the collective-bargaining process. Contract negotiations with major unions are usually protracted and testy, while needed changes are often limited, late, and easily undermined even after being agreed upon.

Today, two well-known local academics will present a plan aimed at reducing the rancor in negotiations and replacing the thicket of work rules that restrict flexibility with more collaborative decision-making.

“We are either going to take a major step forward by using the modern tools of negotiations or risk frustrating the public and experience a backlash like Wisconsin’s,’’ predicts Thomas Kochan, co-director of the Institute of Work and Employment Research at MIT.

He and Barry Bluestone, dean of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, will outline their “grand bargain’’ for labor relations at the Boston Foundation, focusing initially on public schools. Instead of teacher contracts that run for several hundred pages, the two envision slim pacts that set basic workplace parameters while pushing more problem-solving to the school level. Decisions would be made collaboratively, with problems addressed as they arose by a joint teacher-administrator panel. Peer review would become more integral to the process, while compensation would be tied in part to performance or new duties.

The goal is to replace traditional contract negotiations – along with their demands, counter-demands, posturing, hyperbole, and acrimony – with “interest-based bargaining.’’

“You begin not with demands but by asking: What are your interests and what are my interests, and where do they coincide? And where they don’t, how can we find some way of getting to agreement that meets our ongoing interests?’’ explains Bluestone, whose father was a storied labor leader and who himself has been a member of three unions.

Such a retooled negotiation process puts a premium on outlining the problems and generating solutions. The two will call for a statewide leadership academy to familiarize management and union members with the new way of bargaining and a pilot program to show how the new approach would work. Although experience counsels a certain pessimism, both those steps are well worth taking. The two are right: Things need to change.