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“We have to talk!” Can Labor and Management, on Health Care?

“First, negotiations over health care are simply too complicated and contentious to wait until the typical 30-60 days prior to contract expiration when parties often begin to address contract modification. Second, the painfully difficult issues of cost shifting, cost containment, disease management, wellness and personal responsibility can only be addressed successfully if the parties have a relationship and a process for decision-making based on trust, transparency , and a commitment to joint problem solving.”

– From A New Model for Managing Labor-Management Conflicts with Early Third Party Intervention

Last week I participated in a panel on “Successful Strategies for Negotiating Health Plan Benefits” at a Health Benefits Seminar sponsored by The Benecon Group. On my left were seated experienced labor negotiators who delivered a concise picture of hard bargaining strategies and on my right a municipal manager with a long time relationship with the unions in his municipality who began union negotiations with sessions focused on joint education of health care options. I suggested the establishment of an ongoing joint labor-management committee, another engagement model that encompasses hard bargaining and joint education but goes a step further in establishing an on-going structure for addressing complex issues such as health care. 

A joint labor-management committee can either be part of a formal contract or informally established as an advisory group to the labor and management committees.  One way to think about this group is that it is tasked with understanding the business case for change initiatives and steering the way forward where matters of the heart are involved.  In other words, where urgent matters, such as big changes to benefits, impact the way we feel, we need more than a solid business case, we need to be part of the conversation.

If you believe that a culture of employee engagement in the workplace could lay the groundwork for joint labor-management initiatives, you are part of a small but growing contingent of leaders who are looking for a way to navigate complex workplace issues such as healthcare.

If you are daring enough to contemplate such a bold idea, you probably already know that examples in the field are not exactly abundant and you will need to largely write your own script. However, the examples that do exist are impressive and reveal some patterns that point the way forward.

One of the key points I made in my presentation:

Bargaining is another aspect of the engagement relationship, and if each side feels a sense of urgency to resolve matters for the whole of the community, the adversarial spirit will be less likely to arise. On the other hand, trust and respect do not exclude being tough. The hard work of negotiation will not be the center point of management labor relationship, but rather, the continuation of sustained efforts to achieve meaningful results.

The following are some helpful resources to get started on this journey. Please let me know of your experiences and what you found to be most important along the way.

Key Ingredients for Successful Labor Management Collaboration in the Public Sector

In October 2011 Washington State published a performance review of their labor-management initiatives. Some of the common denominators in successful outcomes were the following:

Identify and Build on Common Interests

  •       Create a shared understanding of what is at stake
  •       Identify shared goals and mutual benefits

Invest In and Measure Success

  •       Provide for joint training and skill development
  •       Build in necessary safeguards to create trust
  •       Consider monetary incentives
  •       Develop measures for performance and accountability

Provide Full and Honest Engagement

  •       Engage as full partners
  •       Invest in relationships, trust building and transparency
  •       Create clear, open communication channels
  •       Separate labor disputes form collaborative intiatives


Strategies and Methods for Public Sector Labor Management Committees (Cornell University)

A comprehensive resource which covers everything from initial planning to methods, measurements and additional resources


Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 2012 Symposium

This provides an academic perspective and background on alternative dispute resolution in the public sector along with foundational principles of public sector labor relations with references to the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. It also cites success factors for Union-Management Partnerships in school districts:

  • Long-term leadership from both union and administration
  • Culture of Collaboration
  •  Investment in joint learning around problem-solving, decision making, team building and leadership
  • Support from communities for collaborative partnerships
  • Partnerships were either formal or informal arrangements but were not hampered by overly prescriptive language


Public Service Public Savings  (Harvard University publications)


Labor Pains: Repairing the Union Management Relationship (Governing Magazine)




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Perhaps most impressive is Nancy’s ability to build HR systems from the ground up. Such a task takes technical knowledge and …

Yaron Prywes, PhD Consulting Psychologist C Global Consulting, LLC