The UAW has announced that the six-week labor dispute between the Big Three automakers has officially ended with a notice on their website on November 20, 2023.
The deal was met with big sighs of relief, but only after disruptive, power-based moves by both parties led to an estimated $10.4 billion in financial net losses. Stakeholders on both sides should be under no illusions that this labor agreement will bring long-term peace between the UAW and the automakers.
Why; The UAW and the auto industries have a predictable pattern of labor disputes that sets the precedent that opposing behavior is not only acceptable, but expected. If history has a way of repeating itself, the parties will return to it in 2028 when their contract expires.
But should I? As an academic who studies the art, science, and practice of highly cooperative industrial relations, I would suggest that the UAW and the automakers could break out of the cycle, but only if both parties choose to put the past behind them and seek a more cooperative and trust-based approach to their negotiations.
A story of distrust
The UAW and the automakers have a deep-rooted pattern of labor disputes dating back to 1913. Carriage and Wagon Workers Union launched initiatives to include manufacturing workers – not just skilled workers – in their struggle for labor rights, competing with American Federation of Labor (AFL) long before the first motor cars were accessible to the general population.
As cars became more mainstream, major manufacturing facilities like Detroit were in turmoil. In 1932, an incident where Ford was fired 80% of its workforce without unemployment benefits sparked a hunger strike 3,000 participants on March 7, 1932.
Police efforts to break them up resulted in four deaths, sparking another march 60,000 participants just five days later. Pinching needs paved the way for the rise of the UAW from its predecessor union, and it was officially established after a convention in 1935.
Fast forward to Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1948, the 10-week International Harvester Strike in the 1950s, solidarity efforts with the civil rights movement, navigating the impact of rising gas prices on auto workers in the 1970s, and many incidents beyond this pressing society timeline, and it’s easy to see that disagreements have always been present.
The latest big controversy? In 2019, 46,000 UAW members went on strike against GM for more than a month, resulting in a four-year contract that ended — frankly — in 2023. With each contract negotiation and labor dispute settlement, the parties are simply upping the ante and setting the precedent that their rival title—The tat behaviors are not only acceptable, but expected.
A broken negotiation process
The UAW-Automaker strikes are a classic example of how standard, old, power-based approaches feed a virtual cycle of mistrust. Take, for example, UAW President Shawn Fain’s live video stream to UAW members on October 6 – three weeks into the strike. In the video, Fain emphasizes “victory” and the use of “power” ten times each, and uses contrasting phrases such as “fight like hell,” “stand up,” “hammer,” and “threat.”
If you were a company with the size and power of the big three automakers, would you just back down as the UAW flexes its muscles? The standard answer is “no,” because auto industry leadership would look weak if they didn’t stand up to Fain and the union members.
And if you were the UAW with nearly 50,000 members, would you bow to auto management when they use their bargaining power to cut benefits like they did during the Great Depression? Once again, the standard answer is “no,” because the UAW leaders would also look weak.
The result is a pattern of opposing behaviors that lead to an escalating duel each time a contract expires. There’s also a scientific reason why the parties are in an escalating binary — it’s called “game theory.”
University of Michigan professor Robert Axelrod’s book “The Evolution of Cooperation” helped put the concept of game theory on the map with his pioneering study of the prisoner’s dilemma, delving into the economic impact of choosing cooperation over power-based approaches.
So what happens when parties choose to be adversarial and use their power? Axelrod describes this as “tit-for-tat” behavior. Simply put, if you are an adversary, expect your adversary to be as well.
The best tactics for “winning” are: 1) Always return cooperation for cooperation. 2) Be fair to your partner. 3) Don’t try to be tricky and game the system for your own benefit. The lessons are simple, but profound: Playing a game cooperatively to achieve a mutual goal is always better than playing it with self-interest in mind.
Now that the UAW and the automakers have gone through the arduous and protracted contract negotiations, they should do some digging into what got them to this point, not just this round, but all the previous episodes when they fought at the table. of negotiations, too.
The Solution: Negotiation How to negotiate
At a more fundamental level, neither side trusts the other. But how can you break the cycle of mistrust? Instead of waiting for the other side to blink, both parties need to put aside the need to win “this deal right now” and start laying the foundation for a relationship of trust by negotiating how they will negotiate in the future.
For example, they should start by negotiating which negotiation tactics are trustworthy – as well as which ones are unreliable, of course. Review a glossary of negotiating terms it’s a great starting point. Both sides should go down the list and agree – together – on which negotiating tactics are fair and credible and which destroy trust so they can be avoided.
Think about it: Ban the good cop, bad cop tactic. Avoid stonewalling, escalation tactics, leaking information, lies, unfair framing methods, power plays, and “If I do this, you’ll do that” approaches.
By completing this exercise, the UAW and the automakers will realize that they have both created an environment of distrust because they use trust-destroying tactics. Once both parties recognize that they are perpetuating a vicious cycle of mistrust, they can consciously stop the behaviors that encourage mistrust negotiation tactics. Instead, they will deliberately promote and use only trust-building tactics.
They should then decide on clear consequences for what will happen if either party does not commit to using the agreed-upon confidence-building tactics. That’s right: What are the consequences when one party falls into old-school behaviors based on self-interest and power plays?
For example, what if for every mistrust move, the wrongdoer was punished in the negotiation process? How would that work? Suppose the parties negotiate 20 points in the contract. Each side can put a weighted ranking on the importance of each element. Slip in disbelief and lose one of the items on your bargain list. Every move with mistrust is a lost opportunity for your organization.
Working together to build a trusting management-labor relationship can seem like a Herculean effort. However, it should be less painful than the $10.4 billion in lost economic benefits that the US economy had to absorb due to the recent strike.
For more on negotiating how to negotiate, seeGetting to We: Negotiating agreements for highly collaborative relationships.”