How To Negotiate: From Debt Ceilings to State Unions

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show,Alex Colvin, associate professor of Labor Relations and Conflict Resolution at Cornell University, discusses the art and science of negotiating in light of Washington's debt ceiling talks, recent state worker deals and the NFL and NBA lockouts.

Alex Colvin, associate professor of Labor Relations and Conflict Resolution at Cornell University, discusses the art and science of negotiating in light of Washington's debt ceiling talks, recent state worker deals and the NFL and NBA lockouts.

This has been a hot summer of intense negotiation, both inside the beltway and across the country. Alex Colvin said a big strategy recently in Washington has been that of simply walking out of negotiations when they are not going well.

Walking out is a strategy that can work as a signal to the other side. You want to signal your commitment to certain positions in negotiations, and I think some of that is what we’re seeing going on here.

He said while the president’s side has been playing a win-win compromise approach, the GOP side has favored a win-lose distributive strategy. The walking out by President Obama may have been an attempt to change that dynamic.

In a win-win strategy, or integrative bargaining, where both parties look for a compromise, usually both parties have a long-term relationship that they are trying to preserve. A win-lose, or distributive, strategy is usually employed when there is no long-term relationship going forward to protect.

The question is often trying to figure out what kind of situation you’re in, because even when you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re still trying to decide who gets how much of the pie.

While the future of the country is a long-term issue, individuals who serve in Congress and the president are all liable to be voted out in the next election. So institutionally the relationship continues, but individually it may well end.

Those two strategies were in play locally, too, as Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York and Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey struggled with their state unions over budget cuts. Governor Cuomo struck a bargain, giving some and getting some, while Christie took more of the zero-sum distributive tack, using the legislature to force through the changes he desired.

Colvin said the different strategies reflect the different relationships each governor was hoping to have with the union.

Cuomo’s in a situation, he’s a Democratic governor, this is a potential interest group that is going to be supporting him in the future, so he needs to maintain a better relationship with them… I think Christie is a different situation, where he’s not viewing the unions as a potential supportive interest group, so he doesn’t need to cultivate the relationship.