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Teachers vs. State: No Way To Negotiate

There’s a popular saying in the business of negotiating that’s worth mentioning at this time in the midst of the troubled Hawaii State Teachers Association vs. state of Hawaii: You should savor and protect your reputation because reputations are like eggs: fragile and easy to break.

It’s never a good idea to negotiate any contract in the press. Collective bargaining laws frown on the practice. That’s one reason reporters are not present at negotiations. It is a special time when management and labor can sit around a table in some obscure hotel and discuss their demands.

For example, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said publicly that the latest contract proposal by the union representing Hawaii’s public school teachers was “fiscally irresponsible,” and urged educators to accept a settlement offer submitted by the administration.

HSTA president Wil Okabe responded immediately: “The proposal reflected feedback the union received while surveying 13,000 teachers over two weeks earlier this year and was not fiscally irresponsible.”

Although no one actually mentioned the word trust, it’s obvious that these two individuals don’t trust each other at the bargaining table. And just as trust begets trust, distrust begets distrust. Which is where we are now and have been for some time. Everyone is weary and wants closure.

No one is served by this kind of rhetoric. Starting negotiations with a positive reputation is essential. Negotiators on both sides of these power struggles should remind themselves that having a reputation for breaking their word and not negotiating honestly will almost guarantee they will have a more difficult time negotiating in the future.

Rather than leaving reputation to chance, negotiators can shape and enhance their reputations by acting in a consistent and fair manner. Consistency provides the other party with a clear set of predictable expectations about how you will behave, which will lead to a stable reputation. Fairness sends the message that you are principled and reasonable.

It’s a good idea for high-profile negotiators like the governor and HSTA director to seek feedback to learn how they are being perceived, and use that information to strengthen their credibility and trustworthiness.

The uneducated tactic of “throwing grenades” at each other might feel good, but it’s really uncalled for, especially among educators.