Reflecting on managed bargaining: NZNO members working in district health boards have rejected the employers" "best offer" made during eight weeks of negotiations. What lessons can NZNO learn from the complex process of trying to negotiate a deal that is fair to 55,000 members belonging to 10 different unions?
Article Type: Report
Subject: Collective bargaining (Research)
Stakeholders (Laws, regulations and rules)
Administrative agencies (Laws, regulations and rules)
Author: Alexander, Glenda
Pub Date: 10/01/2011
Publication: Name: Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand Publisher: New Zealand Nurses' Organisation Audience: Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Health care industry Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 New Zealand Nurses' Organisation ISSN: 1173-2032
Issue: Date: Oct, 2011 Source Volume: 17 Source Issue: 9
Topic: Event Code: 930 Government regulation; 940 Government regulation (cont); 980 Legal issues & crime; 310 Science & research Advertising Code: 94 Legal/Government Regulation Computer Subject: Government regulation
Product: Product Code: 9918330 Collective Bargaining
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 271050299
Full Text: Earlier this year, 62 percent of NZNO members working in the district health board (DHB) sector who participated in the process, decided we should attempt an alternative or managed approach to renegotiating the national DHB multi-employer collective agreement (MECA).

The decision to approach the bargaining using something other than the "standard" bargaining process was based on options developed by the bargaining framework group, a sub committee formed by the Health Sector Relationship Agreement Steering Group.

Meeting all stakeholders

The alternative process was formally set out and agreed by the parties, with particular phases or steps described. The first stage was to meet with all the stakeholders (the 10 unions, the Council of Trade Unions, Ministry of Health and the DHBs) to determine the context in which the bargaining would take place, particularly to identify the broad funding parameters. This meeting was seen as significant because, as is usual in bargaining, we would have no opportunity to discuss the contributing factors and perspectives of the parties before bargaining started.

The next phase was to have each of the unions select and endorse their bargaining teams and to prioritise their issues (claims). The third phase was to start the formal bargaining. This began in early July with the parties presenting their issues, with common issues being discussed collectively, and union- or MECA-specific issues discussed in separate meetings.

This bargaining process took around eight weeks with offers, counter offers, options, claims and counter claims being exchanged. It culminated in the employers putting their "best offer" on the table and asking the unions to take it out for ratification. Due to the number of issues not addressed by the proposal, the unions were not able to positively recommend members accept the proposal.

The final phase was for each union to run their own ratification process. If one of the three "core" unions (NZNO, Public Service Association or Service and Food Workers' Union) failed to ratify the proposed collective agreements, then the alternative process would be concluded and we would return to our standard bargaining process.

Reflecting on the alternative approach, to say there was a degree of scepticism about entering into another collaborative process with the other CTU health sector unions is an understatement. The bargaining process is complex at any time but was particularly complicated due to the different culture, goals and organisational drivers of each of the 10 unions involved. The range of occupational groups covered by the 50 collective agreements we were negotiating added further difficulties, given the characteristics of the groupings and the professional issues, liabilities, accountabilities and consequences of decisions that would affect each group differently. The negotiators had to constantly weigh up their collective responsibility to try and progress the overall working conditions for all, while ensuring we kept the faith with our own constituent groups. There were times when all in the NZNO team struggled with feeling our self determination, independence and "sovereignty" were being compromised.

With its predominantly female membership, NZNO is committed to equity. During the negotiations we had to fight for this principle on a number of fronts. It was difficult to hear other unions, during this bargaining, arguing for the same provisions as our MECA, when a number of the provisions we had achieved in the past had been the result of trade offs or compromises agreed to in the context of the bigger picture.

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Communication styles and the decision making processes we had been developing over the preceding bargaining rounds made collaboration more delicate. Joint communications that work for all are either so generic they say nothing or, if more direct, in some way cause unintended offence or misunderstanding.

Achieving an acceptable and equitable outcome for all union members, while still addressing the priorities of each group, was just about impossible. For example, none of the unions favoured the lump sum on principle, as it does nothing to boost ongoing wage rates. And two percent on the lowest pay rates does not amount to very much at all, which is why a minimum lump sum was proposed. However, at the other end of the pay scale, lump sums can be attractive (even taxed), especially if seen as a bit of extra money before Christmas.

Expectations of a common approach to the wage increase meant that if one group tried to be creative around re-directing the money to another priority, it was perceived that that group had done better than another, rather than had just done things differently. In separate bargaining, these decisions are easier to make, as the influence and input of the representatives present are more direct and focused on the issues of their particular group.

Would we or should we do this again? I am still firmly of the view that every opportunity should be thoroughly explored and analysed in the context of the time, and decisions made on the merit, or otherwise, of a particular course of action. What we shouldn't do is to too lightly dismiss our instincts, the progress we have made and the successes we have had as a leading union in bargaining and campaigning in our own right. While we have formed many constructive relationships with employers and other unions, we should not let the value we place on those associations get in the way of our first duty being to our own members.

By associate industrial services manager Glenda Alexander
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.