The threat of public sector strikes has now widened from protest over pension reform to protest at the proposed public sector pay freeze. The coalition government has frozen public sector pay for two years, calling it vital to help drive down the budget deficit. Ministers say the pay-freeze will save the government £3.3bn a year.

The TUC voted at its annual Congress to support a co-ordinated strike action if talks over the public sector pay-freeze break down. Unison boss Dave Prentis said ministers had “declared war on our people” and vowed to lead a “fightback”. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said that a “sense of urgency” was needed:
“The way to really push the government is to follow up the day of demonstration [planned for 20th Oct] by mass co-ordinated strike action across the public and private sectors.” Ed Miliband has said that he will attend the Trade Union march against the government’s austerity strategy planned for that date.

At the same time, a spokesman for David Cameron said there will be no compromise on the public sector wage freezes or pension cuts:
“We have put in place some changes in pensions and we do not intend to reopen these talks. We have put in place a public-sector pay freeze for two years and we do not intend to reopen that decision either. Strike action would benefit no-one.”

Positions not Motivations

The negotiation feels very positional and therefore very fixed. On this basis it’s not possible for either side to win except at the expense of the other. However, the most effective negotiations arise when each side focuses on the motivations of the other side – why they want the things that they say that they want. Looked at this way negotiation problems become less positional and are more likely to yield more than one answer. Government has a reassurance need to cut spending. Union members may have a range of needs from security to desperation to simple recognition of the value of the role that they and their members play.

There may be several ways of reconciling these needs which the top-down imposition of a simple pay freeze may not achieve. If exploring these underlying motivations is done collaboratively it can generate a range of solutions.

Re-framing the issue as “how do we ensure the highest level of public services we can afford and protect the most jobs we can afford for the next generation” enables the underlying motivations on both sides to be captured, invites the problem to be shared and encourages both parties to find answers to the problem.

“Joining” behaviours like “sharing problems” and “sharing solutions” can be a very effective choice of tactic when bargaining in these circumstances. These behaviours also improve the climate of the negotiation. They also increase the chances of both sides being committed to the outcome, because they helped to create it – this is far more likely to happen than if one side simply imposes a solution on the other.

Joint solutions could include;

  • bonuses for productivity
  • pay rises in return for innovation
  • focusing on other non-financial employee benefits in lieu of cash (e.g. time off, training or even sharing in the public sector benefits if they negotiate better deals with their suppliers)

Increasing the Pie

One of the most common failings among negotiators is to assume that the pie is fixed and that therefore the only way to protect their own position is to claim as big a slice of the pie as possible and make sure that the other side gets as small a size of the pie as possible. This kind of assumption is often not correct. Of course, if you just focus on what people say that they want in these circumstances it’s hard to find common ground. However, concentrating on why people want the things that they say that they want automatically reveals more options, because there will always be more than one way of meeting that need.

Re-framing the issue to invite the creation of joint solutions makes it more likely that those alternative options will be uncovered and that the parties will be committed to the joint solutions they create.