General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 7
October/November 2000

Negotiating Union Labor Contracts on Behalf of School Districts and Municipalities

By James R. Macy

Negotiating for school districts and other municipalities can be rewarding yet challenging. In the era of open government, with the stresses of tax consciousness and budget constraints, greater pressure is placed upon municipal collective bargaining teams to reach a collective bargaining settlement that is satisfactory to the bargaining unit, yet still responsible to the taxpayers as a whole. In addressing such collective bargaining, the municipal bargainer considers a number of factors toward reaching appropriate resolutions. Although negotiating styles will vary, consideration of certain fundamentals will help the negotiator reach a successful resolution.

Do Your Homework

Preparation for negotiations is a key to effectiveness. Think about the makeup of the municipality’s bargaining team. Consideration should be given to who will be the chief spokesperson, which administrative personnel will be present, and to what degree elected officials will sit at the table as part of the team. Due to the growing complexity of negotiations, it is becoming more common to enlist the assistance of a professional negotiator knowledgeable about negotiations in the public sector to act as spokesperson. It is common to have some administrative staff as members of the team, because they know the day-to-day operations.

Although elected officials may also sit on the team, an elected official is rarely the spokesperson, to avoid various political ramifications. If elected officials are members of the negotiations team, the team should never consist of a quorum of the municipal body. If this is the case, full authority to reach consensus on every issue is always available––a concept in conflict with timing your decisions and bargaining in a give-and-take setting.

Preparation also includes consideration of past concerns under the collective bargaining agreement. The administration should be asked if there were any problems in applying the terms of the agreement. The administrative staff and supervisors responsible for implementing the past contract often will have direct knowledge of areas of concern. These key people will have suggestions as to where there may be a need for change within the collective bargaining agreement. There may be a need to clarify language or propose new language to solve the problem. In addition, the team should review past grievances to see whether language changes are indicated.

Many municipal collective bargaining agreements are driven by data about comparable wages and benefits found in collective bargaining agreements of similar or comparable bargaining units. Therefore, negotiations preparation must include the gathering of relevant data so that the municipality can determine its strengths and weaknesses in terms of benefits and wages compared with those of similar units. For example, if the negotiations team knows that the particular municipality pays an hourly rate of two dollars more than comparable bargaining units, the team can accurately address the wage increases sought by the union at the bargaining table. More and more, private sector data is becoming helpful in making these kinds of comparisons and determining the true economic conditions within a community.

The Bargaining Process

The municipal entity also needs to consider a variety of issues involving the bargaining process itself. For example, at the first negotiation session, ground rules should be established between the parties outlining how negotiations shall proceed. The following points should be decided:

• Who will be the chief spokesperson?

• How many members will be on a team?

• Will negotiations be open to the press and public?

• When and how long can caucuses occur?

• Where will the negotiations take place?

• Is there a limit to the number of proposals parties can present?

• Is there a limit to the timing as to when new proposals can be added?

• Once a matter is resolved, will the parties initial the documents to demonstrate finalization of that issue?

• Once a complete tentative agreement is reached, will both parties recommend the tentative agreement to their respective voting bodies?

These are some of the ground rules for negotiations, but this list is not all-inclusive.

Successful negotiations include the presentation of specific, written proposals that are submitted on behalf of the municipal organization. While some employers may not bring proposals to the table and prefer to respond to what is presented by the union, this minimizes the effectiveness and value of later employer proposals. Remember, negotiations truly is a give-and-take process. Therefore, the employer should bring concerns to the table. The proposals should be clear, and rationale should be given in support of each of the requested changes.

The successful negotiations team must have a sense of timing. Negotiators should not be too quick to assert their full authority because in doing so, they may eliminate the give-and-take process. As a political entity, the union cannot readily accept an immediate offer without having the sense that the municipal entity has more to give. Keep in mind that the negotiations process may be the only opportunity these employees have to meet formally with the administration and elected officials. Quick responses and short meetings can be perceived as indications of indifference and lack of concern. At the same time, the negotiations do not need to take numerous meetings. Do not schedule multiple dates without a clear purpose for each meeting.

The process of negotiations also requires that specific language items be drafted in writing and not left to concept. A fatal mistake in negotiations is to agree in principle and then have the deal fall through based on the failure to write out the exact, agreed-upon language. While the agreement may be reached late at night, the true professional negotiator does not leave the meeting until that agreement is put in writing, reviewed by both teams, and initialed by each chief spokesperson. In addition, always try to make your proposals in writing. Doing so adds to clarity and creates a history of what the employer intended.

Successful negotiators focus on specific goals and establish a negotiations schedule and strategy toward reaching those goals. A municipal entity must know going into the bargain what its economic authority is for reaching resolution. Proposals should be costed out to determine the impact on the budget. The employer should strive to develop a historical perspective that the municipality will not and cannot exceed its established goals. By doing so, protracted negotiations can be minimized.

Finally, a municipal team must be cohesive. Another common, fatal mistake made in municipal public sector bargaining occurs when the union is able to split the management team through political pressure. The municipal team may disagree on various issues among themselves, but it is a critical error to discuss these differences in public or expose them at the bargaining table. A cohesive team with single-minded goals and a single-minded message in negotiations will have more success at reaching a successful, timely solution.

Seeing Eye to Eye

Upon reaching a full tentative agreement for a successor contract, the full tentative agreement should be reduced to writing and approved by each team. The union should proceed first in gaining ratification. Only after the union ratifies the tentative agreement should the municipal employer take up the matter for ratification.

Following ratification by both parties, the successor collective bargaining agreement should be drafted and reviewed by both teams. Upon approval of the new agreement, signatures should be attained to complete the process.


James R. Macy is a shareholder in the Labor and Employment Section of Davis & Kuelthau’s Oshkosh, Wisconsin, office. He has more than 18 years of experience representing private and public sector management in a wide variety of employment issues. Representative clients include manufacturing and service industries, municipalities, and numerous school districts.

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