Mediators aid contract resolution

Angela Gray

When dealing with multimillion dollar contracts and the possibilities of protests, picket lines and strikes, a helping hand sometimes is crucial.

Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation Services governs collective bargaining relationships between parties in public, private and nonprofit sectors.

The largest program within the mediation bureau is labor disputes. This program, which is the only one like it in the state, works with different sectors of education, including the University.

Lori Morrell, a mediator at the Bureau of Mediation Services, spent the past four months working on the settlement between the University and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees unions.

She said she had one goal in mind going into the negotiations as the mediator between the two parties.

“My main focus is always to assist parties in finding a contract resolution,” she said.

Mediators suggest alternatives, clarify and identify crucial issues and seek areas of compromise for both parties, Morrell said.

Morrell has worked with the bureau for 21 years and has experience working with the University and assisting parties in labor management committees, she said.

“The University and the AFSCME unions worked very hard to reach their recent settlement,” she said.

Morrell said that judging from the final rounds of negotiations, the University and AFSCME unions need to improve their work environments.

“I don’t want to portray things as negative, because the (settlement) was very positive,” she said.

Toward the end of negotiations, Morrell said, she suggested the two parties seek further mediation to improve their working relationship.

“It’s not necessarily mediation this time, but rather a resource they can use,” she said.

But even scheduling negotiation sessions is difficult, Morrell said.

“Ultimately, working with the different relationship dynamics is the biggest challenge,” she said.

Lori Vicich, director of communications for the University’s Office of Human Resources, said the University is “certainly open” to working with the Bureau of Mediation Services and the AFSCME unions to encourage a positive relationship.

“Over the years the University has worked through a number of initiatives to cultivate positive working relationships with our unions, and we are open to future efforts,” she said.

Vicich said that ultimately the movement by both the University and the AFSCME unions was what led to a tentative agreement.

Jody Ebert, co-chairwoman of AFSCME Local 3937, said the mediator can have an impact on negotiations.

“We started negotiating our contract with the University and without mediation, but soon after, filed intent for one,” she said.

Ebert said the unions met with (Morrell) and established their primary goal, which was to get a contract.

The mediator tried to get the parties to see different ways of looking at the issues, and offered ideas to reach for a settlement.

Ebert said the mediation services made an impact in the recent settlement.

The impact a mediator has depends on the mediator’s personality and background, she said.

“Some mediators use different strategies and some end up more effective than others,” Ebert said.

She said she supports the help of mediation services to improve the unions’ relationship with the University.

“The mediator suggested working things out before the next contract,” she said.

Ebert said it’s difficult to come back after a strike. The University clerical workers went on a 15-day strike in fall 2003.

“The clericals felt a major impact this time around, and you could sense a lot of trust issues,” she said.

“It’s kind of like marriage counseling,” Ebert said.

It is difficult to negotiate when everyone is in a different position and under constraints, she said.

“Sometimes when you get caught up in negotiations, it is a good thing to have a third party to step in from time to time.”