Co-op Union Conflict Yields Problem-Solving Lessons

A manager looks at employee relationships, common interests, and a method of problem solving that builds trust and improves employee morale.

This isn't an article about unions, although my stories will revolve around that topic. Nor is this an article about negotiating skills, although it's important to understand how negotiating works. This is an article about employee relationships, about finding common interests, and about a method of problem solving that can be used to build trust and improve employee morale.

But first let me start with my story about unions. Outpost Natural Foods has been a union shop since 1979 and a closed shop since 1982 (meaning everyone must join or pay their fair share of dues). I started working at Outpost in 1980, and it was there I first learned about unions, and negotiations, and us vs. them, and how fear feeds mistrust. Every union discussion or conflict usually had a win-or-lose ending.

The most contentious of all union/management conflicts came in 1995. In the middle of contract negotiations, after finding no resolution through conventional negotiating methods, Outpost management took the position that our department heads were in fact true supervisors (by federal law) and filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to have their union status removed. What we interpreted as our legal right the union interpreted as war.

A week later I was in Baltimore for the Natural Products Expo, and in my absence the union took the opportunity to circulate a memo to Outpost's union staff describing proposals management had already taken off the table as if they were current proposals. The memo, titled "Bargaining Hotline," described management's positions in the context of "the battle that was being waged on the employee's behalf." (In conventional negotiations, both management and the union start by offering numerous proposals they don't intend as serious, so that during the process of bargaining, each side could then "remove" those proposals and give the proper appearance of "negotiating.") Outpost was awarded a judgement by the NLRB that our department heads were true supervisors. They were removed from the union and given management standing. We then began two of the worst years of employee morale in recent memory.

Interest-Based Problem Solving

I first heard about Interest-Based Problem Solving (negotiations) in a workshop at the 1997 Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference. At that time I was pretty desperate to find any alternate way of communicating with the union and was still trying to patch up the loss of trust with our employees. What I heard sounded too good to be true, and I was convinced it wouldn't work for Outpost in light of our recent past. But as luck would have it, a federal mediator was located in Milwaukee, the training was free, and the union (which was equally frustrated over communications) agreed to participate.

That was four years ago. Today at Outpost, Interest-Based Problem Solving (IBPS) is our household word. We use it in management team meetings. We use it with employee grievances. We use it as a bargaining committee to structure our union contract, and employees use it to solve work environment issues. At times we use it without really thinking about it!

The textbook definition of Interest Based Problem Solving describes it as an alternative style of resolving issues based on utilizing a set of principles, assumptions, steps, and techniques. IBPS also goes by other names, such as Mutual Gain or All Gain. Its core emphasis is on joint problem solving and consensus building versus taking positions or making proposals. The principles themselves are pretty straight forward, although sometimes difficult to keep on track:

  • focus on issues, not personalities;
  • focus on interests underlying the issues, not on positions about the issues;
  • focus on common interests;
  • judge options based on standards, not power;
  • share information, as it is essential for effective solutions to be found.

Solving problems using IBPS requires the parties to work through a progressive cycle that starts with selecting and defining an issue. I'll give you an example of a work environment issue that our employees had: the music selection being played in the store.

The employees defined their issue as constant disagreements over which music station to play (all pre-programmed stations). Some people didn't like the blues, others got the blues when the music was on, and sometimes the same channel was on all the time.

Once they agreed on the issue, they needed to gather all the information they could to discuss the topic. They found they had a choice of 20 stations, that each station had a pre-programmed number, that marketing felt it was necessary to have music in the store for shopping ambiance, and that the stations could only be changed with the remote control in the manager's office. The next step was to understand their common interests. After much discussion they discovered that their one common interest was that they didn't want the same music station on all the time. Once that was agreed, they had to generate options. One was to play a different station on different days; another was to alternate stations more often. Each option was written on a flipchart, without discussion or prejudice. They then applied a set of standards to each option in order to narrow the list.

Because they were new at this, participants agreed to use the same set of standards developed by the bargaining committee when discussing the terms of the union contract. Those standards were:

  • Is it legal?
  • Is it fair and just to all parties?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • Can it be done?
  • Will it promote quality of products, relationships, and service?
  • Is it consistent with our vision, mission, and values?
  • Were we innovative in our process?

By using a number of those standards they created the following policy about in-store music: "The music selection will be played from the following list, in sequential order. The music will change at 8am, 12pm, 4pm and 8pm daily. The front-end shift person is responsible for changing the station to the next station in order, at those designated times. The holiday station will be played at all times, starting seven days prior to the Christmas holiday and ending on New Years Eve." It really works, and while all employees don't always like the current music selection, they agree to the process.

This was a very simplified version of IBPS, but it takes practice with the simple issues to develop the skills to tackle the really tough ones. When tackling more complex problems, the information gathering step becomes one of the most important in building trust between the parties involved, because the information gathered should be factual and data-based.

In contract negotiations, one of the most difficult challenges usually is discussing the issues that have a financial impact on both the store and the employees. Using conventional bargaining methods, there is typically little common ground: management covets the financial interests of the business and the union the financial interests of the employees. Using IBPS, we took one eight-hour negotiating session to share the store's budget and current financial statements with the bargaining committee members. We decided we could not brainstorm any options until everyone on the committee understood how the budget was used. As a result, we all committed to work on options using those financial projections in light of our current financial condition. This took an incredible amount of trust for all parties, but it was a milestone in improving communication and building trust.

This past year at Outpost we made the commitment to take IBPS beyond the bargaining table by creating a process of communication through joint union/management committee work. Each committee consists of one or more union employees and one or more managers. The Work Environment Committee looks at issues of employee morale, works to review the lines of communication in and between our two store locations, and recommends more effective ways of clearly communicating. The Training Committee has the goal of instituting a best practices list of training procedures, to be reviewed from time to time by surveying employees about what is a benefit and aid in training.

Prior to each store's monthly management team meeting there is a Communications Forum, where in an open arena each department sends a representative to directly address ideas, concerns and suggestions involving store operations or work procedures. The Communications Forum Committee is in place to review and recommend improved processes for problem-solving noncontractual work issues.

If you are serious about using IBPS effectively, I strongly recommend some professional training. We have gone through three training sessions in four years, each time learning and understanding just a bit more about how to work with the process.

We were able to find training locally through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). Congress created the FMCS in 1947 as an independent agency to promote sound and stable labor-management relations. You can call its national headquarters at 202/ 606-8100 or visit its website at, to learn more about its services. Other resources include Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation,

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