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A major challenge for negotiators has always been accurately measuring the effects of the negotiating environment that surrounds them. This was the fatal mistake for leaders of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO as it was more commonly known, in its 1981 round of negotiations. 

Briefly, PATCO’s leadership shifted its electoral support from incumbent President Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Reagan, a former president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, wrote to PATCO leadership pledging his support for major air traffic controller concerns. When PATCO’s members went on strike in early August 1981, then President Reagan declared the strike a threat to national security and gave strikers a 48-hour ultimatum to return to work. When union members refused days later, Reagan terminated them – 11,345 workers in total – banning strikers from working as controllers for life. Some leaders were jailed and a court ordered file of $1 million per day lead to the union’s eventual bankruptcy. 

The PATCO case reinforces the need to carefully measure the shifting environment in which your negotiations take place. PATCO’s leadership had inaccurately measured Reagan’s determination and the popularity of his decisiveness following a term of Jimmy Carter’s waffling. Reagan defined himself as a hard-line conservative and empowered resistance to organized labour nationwide.

A negotiator’s environment can be divided into three sub-groups: internal challenges, external challenges and relationship challenges. Each plays a critical role in both defining and evaluating possible negotiation outcomes, as well as shaping the stage on which negotiations take place. Once defined, negotiators should consider strategies to either create or nurture each sub-group on a continual basis. Effective negotiators understand that the bargaining process does not conclude once the agreement is signed.

Relationship challenges include a broad spectrum of contacts, ranging from union affiliates, elected officials, community leaders and persons occupying positions of influence over decision-makers. This is not limited to relationships outside the union, but includes influential persons or groups within the bargaining unit or even within your negotiation committee. Negotiators must ask themselves if they have constructive relationships that support their objectives. Can they call upon influential members to support a recommended settlement at ratification? Can they reach out to decision-makers within the company or politicians for support? Each of these groups was a challenge for PATCO.

Leading up to its fateful day, PATCO had slowly alienated the broader US labour community. While labour responded to the mass firings, PATCO was unable to harness support throughout the bargaining process on what became a turning point in US labour history. Similarly, PATCO’s bold negotiation strategies alienated Congressional Democrats who were already unhappy that it supported the Republican candidate in the earlier presidential race.

The second consideration – internal challenges – includes an awareness of the workplace (common interest for all negotiators), but more importantly how union members understand the broader environment and its impact on possible negotiation outcomes. PATCO negotiators made progress that, in retrospect, reflected reasonable gains in a fluid negotiation world. Having not set the stage for anything less than a full victory, the employer’s final offer was rejected by 95% of the membership.

External challenges can be broad and typically begin with a consideration of the impact of the economy on bargaining objectives. This raises preliminary research tasks on the verification of the austerity arguments, which can either moderate your bargaining objectives or, if the evidence isn’t supportive of the employer’s argument, allow you to systematically devalue their views. External challenges include legislative frameworks for negotiations and the present threats to bargaining structures. They also include longer term anti-labour rhetoric that shapes public perception, not just of the collective bargaining process, but of the purpose of labour.

Effective negotiators are mindful of the full view of their environment and what they need to do overall to nurture it or, in more recent times, to protect it. In the end, negotiators understand that collective bargaining is far more than just assembling proposals before the present agreement concludes.

Bill Cole is a member of the Nelligan O’Brien Payne Consulting Group. His practice includes collective bargaining and interest arbitration. He’s a Senior Research Associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School where he teaches collective bargaining with an emphasis on the public sector. He also teaches organizational development and labour engagement.


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This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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