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A new approach to avoid hostile EBA's

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

It's not uncommon to read in the papers about hostile and difficult negotiations between unions and employers in the context of negotiating new enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs). The most recent I've seen being between the Australian Education Union and the Victorian state government.

The history of union and employer relationships means that there a number of experienced industrial relations practitioners who have been part of a very hostile and adversarial bargaining process for many years. In fact, some practitioners have probably not seen any other approach.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work alongside an experienced industrial relations and workplace consultant. As she was preparing her clients for their next round of EBA negotiations, she brought me in to train the team in interest-based negotiation. The teams then took the interest-based approach into their negotiations - with great success.

The clients we worked with were in industries with a lengthy history of hostile relationships and tough industrial action. Having learned interest-based negotiation, the employers had a common language for their negotiation team to bring in to the process. The teams reported that this meant they brought in a more unified approach to the negotiation room than had previously happened. They also brought much more of a willingness to ask questions of the unions and learn more about their perspectives rather than just start the conversation by putting a position on the table.

In these cases, the interest-based approach was used in a private forum with the parties taking the lead on an interest-based process. Sometimes the parties will need a little guidance to assist them in the process as is illustrated by recent negotiations between Patrick and the Maritime Union of Australia.

Patrick and the MUA have historically had a relationship studded with heated and high-profile disputes. Industrial disputes had resulted in millions and millions of dollars spent by both sides in legal costs alone. By bringing an interest-based approach to their EBA process, the parties were able to negotiate an EBA in the fastest time they had ever experienced with an outcome that was acceptable to both sides and without any industrial action. Not only that, but the level of trust was increased to allow for collaborative discussions at individual site level to manage challenges at particular sites.

The relationship between Patrick and the MUA was so heavily adversarial that they could not have moved forward in an interest-based approach without assistance. A deputy president of the Commission stepped in as an independent third-party to facilitate the process. Her role was not just to help the parties understand the process but to stand in as a tough referee at times.

It is heartening to see this move towards interest-based processes in the industrial relations space and I hope that it is something that will continue to build and gain momentum.

If you would like to learn more about interest-based negotiation and how it can improve your employee negotiations, I'd love to speak with you.

About the Author: Nicole Davidson is a specialist in interest-based processes for negotiation and dispute resolution. She is also an accredited mediator who works with parties to assist them in resolving their disputes.

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