How Principled Negotiations Works

How did traditional adversaries cooperate to develop a reform-oriented context in Boston? What forces influenced them? What role was played by a new form of bargaining, known as “principled negotiations”?

Excerpt from “The Making of a Contract for Education Reform”, By Edward J. Doherty and Laval S. Wilson (Phi Delta Kappan, June 1990). The full article is available as a PDF file.

The first two months of bargaining were traditional in nature and typically unproductive. Normal adversarial bargaining held sway, each side stuck to its own proposals, and no progress was made.

In January the Boston Business Community intervened and asked each side whether it would consider using the services of a facilitator: Conflict Management, Inc. (CMI). CMI is one of several firms to have come out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, headed by Roger Fisher. It trains negotiating parties in the use of “principled negotiations," formerly known as "win-win bargaining."

The superintendent and the union readily agreed to work with CMI for a trial period, with the Boston Business Community footing the bill. The union and the superintendent were both disposed to accept CMI as a facilitator because they were aware of the positive role that CMI had played in the 1987 teachers' contract negotiations in Cincinnati.

CMI’s “one-text" approach changed the nature of the bargaining process. No longer did each party have a "text" or set of bargaining proposals. No longer did each member of the rival negotiating teams “own” his or her statements and positions. The traditional practice of having one person speak for each team while all other team members remained quiet and of having the two sides hold caucuses to resolve internal matters was replaced with contributions from all and open brainstorming of "options."

Such a negotiating process helps foster a collegial and collaborative relationship between the parties. The "one-text" procedure is a systematic approach for shifting negotiation away from concessions, eliciting underlying interests, simplifying the process of inventing options, and deciding jointly on one to pursue.

Consultants from CMI introduced and facilitated the process that enabled the negotiating teams to:

Team members on each side were free to bring up ideas and were not bound by their side's formal proposals. Neither side was locked into anything until the entire agreement was consummated. Confidentiality during the negotiations was critical. The most frequent joke heard during the negotiations was the offer to trade one's team members for those on the other side.

How did the concept of principled negotiations work to enable breakthroughs on major reform issues? Several difficult issues tackled in the negotiations will illustrate the technique in practice.

One of the hardest issues in negotiating school-based management is defining how teachers and building administrators are to share power. In an "option-seeking" exercise, each member of a negotiating team offers an option that meets the other side's needs on a particular point, while still protecting the interests of his or her own side. Nobody "owns" any option offered. All the options offered by both teams are recorded on a wall chart until both parties agree that one of the options is a solution to the problem.

Instead of an endless battle over who's really in charge, the contending parties craft an option that suits both. For example, the parties agreed that the school-site council at a high school would include the headmaster, seven teachers, four parents, and one student. The seven teachers constitute a numerical majority of the council; however, decisions are to be made by consensus, with the principal/headmaster voting in the majority. Lack of agreement on any issue is to be viewed as a signal that the best option has not yet been found. In effect, this is a dual veto system. For any decision to go forward, it must have the support of the principal/headmaster, but it cannot go forward if the elected teacher representatives vote as a block against it.

Such a system forces the council members to seek the best options and insures that key reforms have the support of the implementing parties. There is little sense in replacing a system of top-down decision making that imposes central decisions on often-reluctant teachers and principals with a system of bottom-up decision making that imposes decisions on reluctant principals. School reform at the school level can only be carried out as a true partnership, not as a war in which one side holds sway.

Sustaining the key role of principals in school leadership and on the school-site councils paved the way for later negotiations with the principals' union, the Boston Association of School Administrators and Supervisors (BASAS). BASAS has agreed, pending funding of the administrators' contract, to language on school- based management identical to that which appeared in the teachers' contract -a significant development, since few districts have been able to implement school- based management with the full cooperation of both teachers and administrators. Rochester's principals challenged elements of the reform plan in that city and took their case as far as the state supreme court, while administrators in New York City have been actively editorializing and campaigning against the plans of new Superintendent Joseph Fernandez to bring school-based management to that city's schools.

Once parties engaging in principled negotiations make a breakthrough on a key issue and craft an option that suits both sides, mutual trust and confidence build. The notion of the "dual veto" gave the parties in Boston the confidence to break new ground in defining parent participation on school-site councils. In Dade County, Florida, each school-site council defines its own composition and the role of parents. In Pittsburgh, “instructional cabinets" do not include parents at all. Rochester's School-Based Planning Guide for 1988 spells out a role for parents similar to that in Boston.

Despite the contract's provision for significant parent representation, many Boston parent leaders would have preferred school-site councils to have parent majorities; they look to the legislatively mandated school councils in Chicago as a model. But legislation is not the same as a contract in which key parties agree to work with and support the school-site councils. Teachers and principals may be involved in Chicago's school councils, but this is not likely to be the same in practice as having the full support of the teacher union and the administrators. Legislated school-based management has about as much potential as "legislated learning" -little can be accomplished without the cooperation and enthusiasm of teachers and principals.

Boston's school-site councils give parents a major voice and vote, but parents must win the support of teachers and the principal for any initiative they support. Likewise, while teachers and the principal can block any measure, they will have to win parent support for any reforms they wish to make.

By giving each party the assurance that no solution can be imposed, the notion of the dual veto led to another major breakthrough on the policy governing teacher transfers. Principals and school advocates had long complained that the seniority system prevented schools from recruiting the best teachers for transfers within the system. In the early 1980s vacancies in schools were filled by transfers strictly in accordance with seniority. In 1983 the contract was revised to include the "rule of three," whereby a principal could select one of the three most senior applicants for a transfer.

With the dual veto system in place, the union president was able to propose a new policy for voluntary transfers to schools using school-based management -a policy that would allow a subcommittee of the school-site council (composed of two teachers, the principal, and one parent) to select applicants for transfers without regard to seniority. Since teachers were to be involved in the selection, the historic union concern regarding bias on the part of the principal was no longer an impediment. Thus schools that use school-based management can now actively recruit teachers from throughout the system to fill vacancies. Moreover, they can use the same process to fill positions that cannot be filled by transfers from within the school system.

The most significant breakthrough facilitated by the use of principled negotiations came in the area of school accountability .The union had originally refused even to discuss the superintendent's proposal for performance-based pay, considering it a vindictive and subjective ploy designed to blame teachers for the school system's performance problems. But with the superintendent participating in the principled negotiations -it had not previously been his practice to sit at the negotiating table -the union was able to hear more clearly what his needs were. For him, performance-based pay was a means of insuring school accountability in a decentralized school system.

Once the union understood that accountability, rather than performance-based pay, was the issue, the two sides brainstormed options for how to be accountable, how to set up a system of school- site accountability, and what to do when individual schools continually failed to improve their dismal performance. Thus was born the nation's first contractual union/management system of school accountability.

EDWARD J. DOHERTY is president of the Boston Teachers Union. LAVAL S. WILSON (Boston University Chapter) is the former superintendent of the Boston School District.