Interest Based Negotiations

Personal Writings

            New Orleans      Someone could almost rewrite the song line, “War? What is it good for?” and substitute WTO for war and still get a lot of us clapping and singing along.  Not because the World Trade Organization or WTO for short is not a blood and guts outfit with bombs bursting, but many of us would argue that it’s policies do have some similarities, because often there’s a body count, especially among workers and the global poor.

The WTO is where countries go to argue about trade policies, so of course it’s not pretty. The issues of free trade versus trade barriers with other countries has been with us for centuries, and likely since nation states have existed.  The bureaucracy is byzantine, and the disputes are endless, because there’s big money on the table.  When countries aren’t happy with each other for business or political reasons, the WTO is where they go to see if they can settle the matter.  President Obama’s administration would not approve an adjudicator’s nomination, and President Trump’s administration refused to appoint any adjudicators, so right now there’s no way to settle disputes.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Literally.  Reports are indicating that the WTO is having a bit of a breakthrough in trying to handle its business by trying to adopt “interest based” negotiations into their process.  This isn’t new of course.  In union negotiations this notion has been around for decades.  In fact, in Local 100’s current bargaining with the New Orleans-based Regional Transit Authority, they initially wanted to have a mediator participate in the sessions from the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service (FMCS) who we aren’t using, but did get all of us on a Zoom session to see the PowerPoint and hear about how much FMCS is pushing this in labor negotiations now.

Interest-based negotiations attempt to eliminate adversarial bargaining or what mediators would see as more self-interested discussions.  An attempt is made to have the parties share their priorities and then attempt to find some mutuality or areas of exchange. .  The mediator seems to have used a metaphor involving a pumpkin, where one country might be more interested in the seeds and the other in the pulp or the rind, so a deal can be made.

It’s hard to impossible in many labor negotiations, because there needs to be some trust and good faith.  Countries within the WTO of course have those issues and more.  It seems to have taken some 350 meetings with various countries in order to get this off the ground, and now that the mediator has been recalled by the new Guatemalan government, some are skeptical of progress

It’s all a mountain to climb whether it’s labor-management or country-to-country.  For all of the touchy-feeling, kumbaya behind all of this, the real truth seems to be that interest based negotiations are embraced at the point of dysfunction, when this seems the least worst alternative and is chosen as much out of desperation, as hope.

Nonetheless, don’t knock it if it works.  I’m not a believer yet, but I’m open-minded about it all, and, who knows, one day, we might be at the table and have an opportunity to give it a try.  It hasn’t happened yet, but just maybe another world is possible.