Saturday, March 05, 2011

Talks Are Ongoing

We live in an era of "behind the scenes" access. Embedded journalists report from war zones. Surgeons are tweeting from operating rooms. Cameras and microphones are everywhere. We can go inside huddles or locker rooms to hear what coaches are saying. Celebrities agree to do reality shows that, however filtered, give us glimpses of their environment beyond the spotlight. DVD commentaries reveal the thought processes of those involved in film production. Even if the access isn't instant, we usually don't have to wait long. Anyone wanting to know more about the inner workings of the Bush administration now has numerous memoirs and investigative books to pick through (or even more recently, there is a book that offers inside dope on the 2008 Obama campaign). Private phone conversations, diatribes, and messages are routinely leaked. And now even classified government documents can be downloaded by anyone who cares to see them.

But for all that, there is one category of discourse which is as off-limits now as it has always been. Labor negotiations are a mystery to me. I've had one job where my salary was negotiable, and I think negotiations lasted for less than sixty seconds. So when I read about either individual or collective bargaining happening (and it is usually in the sports pages that I encounter these stories), I have no frame of reference to conceive of what actually goes on in such sessions. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell keeps on talking about how his league's collective bargaining agreement will be settled through "negotiation, not through the media, and not through litigation." That sounds great, but I find myself curious about how agreements are settled through negotiation. What I do know is that several hours have already been devoted to the negotiations and that a federal mediator has been a part of it. What I would like to know is whether this kind of approach is the most efficient way to reach an agreement.

I realize that a league collective bargaining agreement involves many facets and will end up being a multi-page document that will be scrutinized by several lawyers. But I've got to think that the issues that are currently preventing a settlement aren't the ones that will ultimately end up in the fine print. From all reports, the length of the season and the percentage of revenue allocated for player salaries are the two issues that are dividing the sides. And so one would think that these are the issues that are being discussed for hours on end. Again, I'd like to know how this works.

Of special interest to me is that in news articles about these sessions, the word "negotiations" is often supplanted by the word "talks." This word is also used to describe an individual's negotiations with a team (e.g. "Talks between the Cardinals and Albert Pujols have broken off"). There is an implicit suggestion that to negotiate means to talk, and an implicit value judgment is also given that to talk is productive (sometimes this becomes explicit, such as when we hear "at least the two sides are talking").

If you've read my last two posts prior to this one, you might know where I'm going with this. A couple weeks ago I questioned the utilitarian value of legislative debate. Last week I considered the possibility of reducing the length of classroom sessions, while also increasing their frequency. I wonder if negotiating sessions might be improved by considering such practices. Perhaps if we changed the fundamental structure of negotiating sessions so that they take place through written communications, consensus will be more easily attained. Perhaps we need to split negotiations into several different pockets of interaction instead of having one large bargaining session. Perhaps we need to limit sessions to shorter but more frequent interactions.

Or perhaps the status quo is the best way to conduct business. It's hard to know, though, since we don't have any access.


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