Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 25, 1999
'Let the children come to me'
How to avoid future school labour disputes
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
During the course of the recent labour dispute affecting the Calgary Catholic School District, I received a great many telephone calls, letters and faxes but none moved me as much as the one from a Grade 6 student.
Evan wrote: "Please don't let anything like this happen again in the future. Just try to keep schools open now because children have a right to education. I'm just really sad about this and I am very disappointed in what the school board has done.
"Would Jesus have done this if he were the head of our school board? I am pretty sure the answer is no. Jesus would have kept the schools open and done whatever he could to get everyone to agree. Jesus always said 'Let the children come to me,' even when he was very busy."
I agreed with him but also hastened to point out that Jesus wouldn't have endorsed a work-to-rule campaign either. Jesus would also likely rebuke the government for its chronic under-funding of education in the province. Such under-funding helped to create a pressure cooker atmosphere.
I don't think that the answer is to take away the right either of employees to work-to-rule or to strike, or management's right to lockout. That would be similar to allowing steam to build up indefinitely in a boiler without providing an outlet for its escape other than passing a law against exploding boilers.
What we have to strive to do is create an environment where such actions become unnecessary rather than illegal.
It is now important to ask: "What have we learned from this whole experience?" Do we have good labour-management mechanisms, policies and practices in place? How can they be improved? Do we have the best negotiation method in place given our philosophy of Catholic education?
We seem to routinely engage in positional bargaining over issues such as substitute teachers, preparation time, and voluntary versus essential services of teachers. Each side takes a position, argues for it and the process takes on a life of its own, frequently becoming a contest of wills.
If a solution is to be found, concessions or trade-ins have to be made to reach some kind of compromise that each side can live with. At the end of the day we have to ask, "Did this procedure produce a wise agreement, was it efficient, and did it improve, or at least not damage, the relationship between the parties?"
Whatever we think about the wisdom of the agreement reached in Calgary Catholic, the process was anything but efficient. It took up too much time and energy considering the issues that were on the table.
In addition, an incredible amount of money was spent posturing, battling and negotiating. The attempts to massage public opinion through media ads only exacerbated an already difficult situation.
Both sides have acknowledged that it was also damaging to their relationships as they have pointed to the need for healing and reconciliation but what strategies are being put in place to deal with these wounds?
I suggest that future negotiations move beyond positional bargaining to principled negotiations. Principled negotiation can be summarized in four points.
1. Separate the people from the problem. We are not computers but creatures with strong emotions who often have radically different perceptions and difficulty communicating clearly. Emotions, especially anger, typically become entangled with the objective merits of the problem.
Taking positions just makes this worse because egos become identified with positions. Hence, participants have to come to see themselves as working side by side, attacking a problem, not each other.
2. Focus on interests, not positions. Such a point is designed to overcome the drawback of focusing on people's stated positions when the object of a negotiation is to satisfy their underlying interests, for example, in view of your past behaviour, how can we trust you? Compromising between positions is not likely to produce an agreement that will effectively take care of the human needs that led people to adopt those positions.
3. Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do. Trying to decide under pressure, with a lot at stake, across a table from a perceived adversary narrows vision and inhibits creativity. These constraints can be set aside by designating a time within which to think up a wide range of possible solutions that advance shared interests and creatively reconcile differing interests. Before trying to reach an agreement, invent options for mutual gain.
4. Insist that the result be based on some objective standard. We should not reward personal or group stubbornness or intransigence. An agreement must be based on some fair standard such as market value, expert opinion, custom, law or the social teaching of the Church.
By discussing such criteria rather than what the parties are willing or unwilling to do, neither party need give in to the other; both can defer to a fair solution.
Such principled negotiations focusing on basic interests, mutually satisfying options, and fair standards typically result in a wise agreement where everybody wins. Permit the reaching of a gradual consensus on a joint decision efficiently without all the digging into and out of positions with the passage of time.
Dealing directly and empathetically with the other party also makes possible an amicable agreement.
Such principled behaviour would more effectively lead the children to Jesus.
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