What happens at all-night labor contract negotiations?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 26 2007 7:01 PM

Negotiating on the Night Shift

Why are labor contracts worked out on nights and weekends?

Broadway theater producers and striking stagehands argued over a new contract for 20 consecutive hours this past weekend, from early Sunday until 6:30 on Monday morning. The two sides agreed to meet again on Monday evening. Why are they keeping their negotiations to nights and weekends?

So the talks don't interrupt business as usual. Bargaining sessions are frequently scheduled for hours when management and employees aren't working, partly so the company can continue to operate, and partly to allow employees to spend daylight hours on the picket lines. In some cases, management is obligated to pay nonstriking employees who spend the workday bargaining, so there's an incentive to keep talks to off-hours. A union might also gain an advantage from late-night negotiations, since employees who normally work shifts would be accustomed to pulling all-nighters.

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Midnight-oil bargaining teams might comprise a handful of people per side, or up to a few dozen for disputes involving very large companies. A major contract negotiation typically begins with an opening ceremony during which each side makes formal introductions and delivers speeches. (For the United Auto Workers' talks with General Motors and Ford, photographers and journalists were invited to this opening number, and negotiators sometimes played to the crowd with jokes.)

It can be hard for the negotiations to get going, though, since the two sides may not immediately agree on basic ground rules. The bargaining teams have to decide whether to impose a gag rule with respect to the media or each organization's members. They may also discuss rules for caucusing, or stepping away from the table to talk privately with others on your team.

Once the actual bargaining begins, there's usually a lot of posturing and waiting around. The two sides can spend hours talking face-to-face and exchanging documents that bolster their arguments, but more often half the people are twiddling their thumbs. After one side makes an offer, the other goes into caucus and returns, minutes or hours later, with a counteroffer, which then prompts the first side to leave the room to work on its counter-counteroffer. Since these are compromises by committee, even small changes can take a long time. Note-takers on each side keep a record of what's said in case there's a disagreement down the line. In a complicated negotiation, several subcommittees might hold simultaneous talks on the side, each addressing a specific issue like employee pensions. Top negotiators can also hold one-on-one "sidebar" meetings that are separate from the main talks; this is actually how most deals are struck—over dinner or drinks, not across a conference table. (A sidebar meeting between Hollywood writers and producers in October couldn't prevent a strike, though.)

If negotiations drag on for a whole day (or night), both sides might agree to break for a few hours. But usually so much is at stake—in the case of the Broadway strikers, millions of dollars a day in lost revenue for the city—that no one stops for sleep unless it's absolutely necessary. Eventually, negotiators may decide to do away with face-to-face talks altogether and opt instead for what's called "shuttle diplomacy." The two sides stop communicating with each other directly, and a federal mediator ferries proposals from one side to the other and helps broker compromises.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks  Richard Bank of the AFL-CIO; Kate Bronfenbrenner, David Lipsky, and Ken Margolies of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University; Linda Foley of the Newspaper Guild CWA; and Philip Mortensen of Kreitzman, Mortensen & Borden.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.