Post Date: February 1, 2006

The following op-ed co-written by HLS Lecturer Daniel L. Shapiro and HLS student Molly Dunham, The Replacements, was published in The New York Times on February 1, 2006.

The executive board of New York City’s Transport Workers Union met yesterday to discuss what steps to take now that its members have rejected the proposed contract deal that ended the three-day transit strike back in December. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has urged the union and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to “work together on an amicable resolution.”

This advice sounds reasonable and even obvious. Clearly the adversarial method of negotiation — the statements of defiance and disrespect — did not work well. The result was a strike that engendered lingering anger and frustration — and a tenuous agreement that has since collapsed.

But here’s the issue for the union and the authority: each side wants to look like a gladiator for the public and for its constituents. Yet they also have to work together because the negotiation involves shared problems. Neither side wants to lose money or public esteem, and both share interests in satisfied employees and a workable contract. While arbitration is an option, a negotiated agreement will lead to a more stable outcome and improved relations.

The good news is that there’s a simple solution: send in the second string, and do it now.

Don’t wait for tensions to heat up again. A handful of lower level negotiators, without the power to make a deal, can meet in private and generate workable options, recommending the best to the lead negotiators. The cost of second-level negotiation pales in comparison to the cost of another strike.

These second-string negotiators can devise realistic options that satisfy each side’s interests. What liberates the second string — and improves the quality of their solutions — is that there’s no commitment. They are free of the need to keep up a tough image. The stress of negotiation is replaced by camaraderie and creativity.

Ideally, a meeting of the second string would include a few influential members from the union and the authority. There are plenty of neutral academics and mediators who could pick up the phone today and organize the meeting.

Of course, at some point the marquee officials have to make decisions, and then the news media become part of the mix. Unfortunately, too often, the news media present the negotiation as though it were a boxing match where winning means knocking out the other side. This portrayal inflames animosity, slowing progress toward agreement.

But the news media can also use its power to reduce resistance. They can educate the public, constituents and the parties themselves about what is really important to each side. And as a result, they can build empathy, decrease polarization and diminish resistance to an agreement good for everyone. Rather than focusing on the personalities, the news media should focus on the policies.

In December, New York experienced the consequences of neglecting to deal effectively with the emotional side of an important negotiation. But to achieve the “amicable” discussions that Mayor Bloomberg wants, the negotiations need to attend not only to logic and rationality, but also to those emotional matters beyond reason.

Daniel L. Shapiro teaches at Harvard and is the co-author of “Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate.” Molly Dunham, a student at Harvard Law School, is a former transit analyst for the New York City subway system.