The Cost of “I Don’t Care.”

A few years ago, I was sitting at the negotiation table with the staff negotiator for the UAW who was representing most of the staff of the human services agency I directed. We both knew where the final agreement would settle within a fairly narrow range, so the negotiation was somewhere between proforma at one end and details that didn’t matter all that much one way or another at the other end. As expected, the union made some proposals that we both knew weren’t going to be accepted and a few that were both reasonable and acceptable. The negotiation was to sort out those details and issues. We both knew that labor and management can have big issues at times but also knew that this was not one of those times; or so I thought.

In this round of negotiations, the agency would have been fine continuing the current contract but was quite willing to sweeten the deal some. Here is the problem. The UAW negotiator made the first offer from the union that he knew, and I knew would not be accepted. The agency then made its first counter offer that I knew, and he knew would not be accepted. We were setting the outside limits within which the negotiation was expected to focus.

To my surprise, the UAW negotiator immediately brought out his only real weapon. Instead of making a modified offer, he said that they would take an immediate strike vote if their first offer wasn’t accepted in full. What do you think my response should have been?

I admit that the temptation to play his version of hard ball was nearly overwhelming. Although I was far from speechless, the range of possible responses was flowing past so rapidly that I was temporarily dumbfounded. I finally said, “I doubt if that would be a very good outcome for either of us.”

His response was even more surprising than his starting the negotiation by refusing to negotiate. They would not negotiate. Either they got everything they wanted, or they would strike. To my suggestion that striking would not be a good outcome for either of us, he said, “I don’t care. I just don’t care what you think about the outcome.”