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A new collaborative approach to negotiations

Interest-based bargaining focuses on building relationships, understanding concerns — and finding joint solutions

January 20, 2016 — 

In Dec. 2015, the Association of Employees Supporting Education Services (AESES) and the University of Manitoba successfully reached an agreement. 91 per cent of AESES members who voted on Dec. 9 elected to accept the agreement.

To get to that positive outcome, AESES and the U of M agreed to use a collaborative approach to bargaining, referred to as interest-based bargaining. In advance of the bargaining process, all members of both bargaining teams completed an interest-based bargaining workshop offered by the provincial government.


Collaborative approach a better way

In interest-based bargaining, both groups bring issues, problems and concerns to the table for discussion to find joint resolutions that meet the needs of both sides. The collaborative approach is gaining popularity in the public sector and at Canadian universities because of its success in finding common goals and building positive relationships rather than adversarial ones.

“There seems to be much more of a progressive spirit to negotiations these days,” notes Greg Juliano, associate vice-president (human resources) at the U of M, “a willingness to do things differently, less adversarially, more collaboratively. Utilizing interest-based bargaining with AESES, we’ve shown that the old ways of negotiating contracts and collective agreements aren’t necessarily the only or the best way.”

The two-day training workshop was suggested by AESES, says Lisa Halket, U of M’s director of staff relations.

“The idea is to have a full discussion of the problem … and then everyone participates in discussion of what a solution might look like,” Halket explains. “It’s a better approach that builds trust on both sides.”


Benefits of interest-based negotiations

Through the interest-based approach, AESES and the University committed to negotiating the collective agreement with ground rules stating that both sides would share information openly and participate in discussions of a range of options, with the understanding that no final commitments would be made until the end.

“AESES supports the use of interest-based negotiation in order to fully explore issues brought up during bargaining,” says AESES president Laurie Morris.

“This method allows both parties to better understand each side’s interests, which can result in resolutions satisfactory to all parties.”

Morris went on to note that issues where no common ground can be found generally do not get resolved. At that point, both sides may revert back to traditional bargaining or shelve the issue for future discussion.

In a traditional approach, each side comes with solutions already formulated in collective agreement language; the interest-based approach, on the other hand, allows a full exploration of the options.

“Instead of trying to convince people that you’ve got the answer to the problem, you have everyone discuss answers to the problem. And the answer has to meet each side’s needs,” Halket says. “And coming out of it, everyone involved has a much greater understanding of the concerns of each side.”

Another difference from traditional process is that all team members are free to contribute to the discussion because no one is bound by any idea until both sides agree on one. Normally, only the chief spokesperson of each side talks.

With everyone participating, “you freely put up options even though they might be outrageously expensive, or require technology that we don’t have, or require many people. You don’t shoot down ideas, you come up with all these options first, and then move towards finding a solution,” says Halket.

In the end, not only did the approach result in a successful agreement, it had other benefits, including the establishment of goals agreed upon by both sides:

  • to foster a collegial and respectful environment;
  • the efficient and effective use of resources;
  • an ability to create a flexible and adaptable workforce with an appreciation for employees’ needs for work-life balance; and
  • a commitment to work together in addressing areas of concern for the University and AESES.


Morris admits this approach can take more time, but says, “We feel that comprehensive discussion of the issues, together with joint problem solving, leads to a more favourable relationship between the parties.”

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