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Bargaining is Worth the Grief

Opposing Forces Must Deal With One Another to Succeed

Dave Arnold

It's hard for me to compare contract negotiations with any other experience in life. Some women members of my local compare negotiations to childbirth.
"Both are the devil to go through, but worth it in the end," they say.

What often makes it the devil to survive is the clash of personalities between opposing players. It's not always issues or money that cause breakdowns. Sometimes it's the people involved. 

Opposing Forces

I have been on the bargaining team of every contract negotiation for my local Association of education support professionals (ESP) since 1993. I was head negotiator for almost half of those contracts. I know of two incidents where negotiators had heart attacks at the bargaining table. Only one lived to negotiate again.

As the school year comes to a close and the summer begins, many ESP locals will begin contract negotiations. Most of us can think of a school board member or administrator who we would rather not even talk to let alone deal with at the bargaining table.

Stay Focused

The problem is that quite often we will find ourselves sitting across the table from those very school board members and administrators we detest. And we have no choice but to hammer out our differences and press on.

I have attended several ESP conferences where attendees learned how to work with people, even those who make our stomachs turn. One workshop I recall from a few years ago was facilitated by Rex and Kathleen Trobridge. Here's a taste of that session, titled, "Classical Rules and Principles for Success in Working with People."

1.  No one likes to be criticized, but learn to constructively criticize when you must.
2.  All people have a powerful drive to have their esteem needs met, and to get positive acknowledgement for their good work.
3.  Whoever speaks first will tend to set the tone or tenor of the entire exchange, therefore, begin the discussion positively whenever possible (don't come out fighting).
4.  Remember that the smile is the most powerful social bonding behavior in the human behavior repertoire.
5.  People have powerful feelings about our remembering their name and addressing them according to their preference.
6.  Learn the skill of active listening (become aware of barriers to good listening).
7.  Steer conversation in the direction of the known interest of the other person.
8.  You cannot "win" an argument. If you lose it, you've lost it. If you win it, you still lose (goodwill for future relationships).

Communication is Key

Negotiating a contract is different at every local for a variety of reasons. From team selection (appointed or elected) and team philosophy (interest-based vs. traditional bargaining) to the role of UniServ directors (coach or player) and the internal climate (friendly or hostile), every situation is its own game with its own players. 

While there are many variables, there is one constant. All contract negotiations involve people communicating with each other. The good thing is that everyone has the same goal: reach an agreement. In the end, it's worth it.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.