Labor Disputes – Unionized Dis-Unity

by on January 10th, 2012

One of the assignments in my Conflict Management and Negotiations class was to prepare for discussion of the documentary Final Offer.  You can watch it online, if interested.

A very suspenseful documentary about the labor negotiations between the Canadian section of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and GM in 1984. Even though the immediate objectives of negotiations were achieved by the Union, still with significant concessions, the overall outcome was a dubious victory. Suffice it to say, the nature of the conflict was so complex and multi-faceted that it eventually resulted into the break off of the Canadian section from the UAW.

The film vividly illustrates the division lines between the workers and the administration, the level of opposition, which sometimes outbursts into downright hostility and even violence. It was interesting to watch actual frictions between the workers and foremen, who represent the administration. The level of distrust and lack of mutual respect were truly remarkable. But these rifts on the assembly line were just a colorful background for the big fight that took place between the Union and GM.

For me it was quite important to realize that the dynamics of the negotiations that include multiple parties and represented by groups of individuals are often affected not only by the conflicting interests between the two negotiating parties, but also by the conflict of interests within the presumably monolithic groups. In this case the head of the Canadian section of UAW, Bob White, had to deal not only with the GM negotiators, but also with different factions in his own union, as well as with Owen Bieber, the head of the UAW.

These conflicting interests within the group have a potential of weakening the group’s ability to effectively negotiate with the actual opponents at the negotiation table. In this particular case White was able to mostly keep his ground, but as mentioned earlier, it lead to the break up with the UAW. Here comes in play the importance of a strong leader who can define, articulate and convey the vision and the values. White generally lived up to the challenges of the situation and was able to defend his position in face of the contradictory forces, each with their own agenda and perception of the situation.

This also brought me to think about broader context of intra-organizational politics. Any organization presumably has the same mission and objectives outlined for the whole organization. But there are always various groups or individuals within an organization that can have quite different vision for approaches, techniques and paths to the organizational objectives. It is very crucial to be able to bring everyone on the same page. And if it is impossible, which is probably going to be the case in most situations, then the leader needs to be able to forge an acceptable compromise and then enforce it within the organization, even before going out to negotiate with the external party.

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