Welcome to AccelPro Employment Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. Today we’re featuring a conversation about labor negotiations with Stephanie Sloggett-O’Dell, whose background uniquely qualifies her for this conversation.
She’s been a member of a union, an attorney for a union and a corporate vice president negotiating contracts on the management side. In other words, she’s seen every side of contract negotiations and lived to tell about it.
And what she tells are great stories about how (and how not to) conduct effective contract negotiations. The key, she says, is maintaining open lines of communication. You don’t have to like the person on the other side, but you do have to listen to them and respect them if you want to get a deal done. The supplemental materials and episode transcript are available below.
Stephanie Sloggett-O’Dell’s LinkedIn profile.
I. LEARNING THE ROPES FROM THE INSIDE AND OUT
Matt Crossman, Host: Let’s set the table here. We’re going to talk about labor negotiations and how to prepare for them. It’s interesting to have you as our guest, because usually our guests have one perspective or the other. They’re either labor or management. You have a very unique background in that you’ve been on both sides of negotiations in completely different industries, which we’ll get to in a second. Let’s start first with your experience on the union side. Who did you work for and what did you do for them?
Stephanie Sloggett-O’Dell: I was a senior staff attorney for the Association of Flight Attendants out of Washington, D.C. They represented basically all major carriers with the exception of American Airlines. My client happened to be United Airlines, and when I joined them, they had been attempting to negotiate a contract for three years.
MC: Did you know anything about the airline industry before you took that job?
SSO: I started actually as a flight attendant, and I was a union officer. And this is totally off topic, but after a mid-air collision in 1978, I was the party coordinator for the union and that brought me to the attention of management, who then offered me a management position, and I started working on the management side.
And after I left the airline, then I was hired by the Association of Flight Attendants as a senior staff attorney.
MC: So you went from management to the union.
SSO: I went from union to management to union.
MC: Oh, that’s even more interesting. How did all of that prepare you to negotiate that first contract?
SSO: I knew basically the rules, because the airline industry is very highly regulated. And there were certain things that you really couldn’t negotiate—things like benefits, pay, time off. With the flight attendants, they didn’t have a limit at that time to their duty day or the amount of flight time that they could fly, so we could negotiate that and try to reduce it down somewhat.
Most unions survey their membership and as a result of the survey, they determine what the priorities are. And in this particular case, the union also had some of its sacred cows. In that industry, a contract doesn’t expire, it becomes amendable. So everything remained in place until we got a final agreement. And it took almost a year from when I started with them to finally get an agreement for that particular group of flight attendants.
MC: From hearing that story, my guess is patience would be an important attribute. How do you balance patience with the need to apply pressure?
SSO: I reached out to their negotiator and basically said, I’m new here. I probably bring a different perspective and a different attitude, so I would appreciate it if we could get together and have some coffee.
And so we did that, and he learned about my background, I learned about his, and it was a little easier then to be able to have some off-the-record discussions and to try to get a reasonable agreement.
MC: How did you go from working for the union to being the VP in the medical world?
SSO: When I was in the union at the airline, our union attorney that I worked with quite a bit went over to the dark side—to the company side. And he had been doing a lot of the labor work as outside counsel for Tenet Healthcare, which was the second largest for-profit acute-care hospital system in the U.S.
He kind of put us together. He said they needed someone in-house, and that I was smart and I could learn the industry. So I started as a senior director and worked my way up to being the vice president for the whole company. I was lucky enough to have a woman who had been in the industry quite a while who was the HR director at the first hospital where I was negotiating, and she gave me a lot of insight and taught me a lot about acute-care hospital operations, which was very helpful.
MC: It’s one thing to start negotiating in an industry in which you’ve worked. Now you’re going to the dark side, as you said, in a completely new industry. What challenges did getting up to speed present?
SSO: I had to learn their terminology. I had to understand a lot of how they operated. One of the keys was sitting there with this outside counsel initially, and being the second chair, so to speak, and helping him.
We were negotiating with the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), so it was housekeeping, food service, ancillary-type positions, and it was interesting because he said, “I’m going on vacation tomorrow. And so if we don’t get a deal today, you have to deal with Stephanie. And she looks nice, doesn’t she?”
The SEIU said, “Yes, she looks nice.”
He said, “Well, she’s not. So we really want to get a deal today.”
So we got a deal that day.
MC: I have to dig into that. That’s a classic negotiating technique, right? He totally did a good cop, bad cop routine on them. Did he tell you he was going to do that?
MC: Did you care?
SSO: No, I didn’t care. Sometimes I can be … uh … stern.
MC: You used the term second chair. What specifically were you trying to learn from that position?
SSO: I wanted to learn obviously more about how things operated so that what we were negotiating that was going to last for three years would not be harmful to the operation and would also be workable for the union. We were negotiating start times and lengths of shifts and that sort of thing, that aren’t necessarily typically negotiated.
MC: I want to go back to that good cop, bad cop. Can you remember a story where somebody pulled the equivalent of that on you?
SSO: I had a situation up in Northern California with SEIU. It was a brand new contract, so I presented them with a comprehensive proposal. And the negotiator said, “no, no, no, no.”
I finally just said, “OK, this is going nowhere. We need to stop. And you and I need to have a little chat.”
And I took him outside and I said, “Look, you can do this all day and you can reject every single thing, but we will get nowhere. And so you need to make a decision. Maybe you make a counter proposal to something—something like that.”
And eventually he did. He was a little chagrined and wasn’t happy with me.
But he got over it.
II. THE VALUE OF FRANK FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATIONS
MC: Two of the stories you’ve told me involve you sitting down with somebody face to face once on friendly terms, once a little less so. The key seems to have been a no BS conversation with the counterpart. Is that just a coincidence that you’ve told me two such stories, or have you found that that’s a crucial element in a successful negotiation?
SSO: I think it’s critical. What is really important is establishing some kind of relationship with the chief spokesman on the other side of the table.
You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but there has to be an open line of communication, typically off the record. You need to lay the groundwork and let the other side know what your bottom line is, and they can tell you their bottom line. And sometimes the twain shall not meet, but other times we can come to some sort of a reasonable compromise.
And I think it just means that you have to respect the other side, and what their objectives are, just like they have to respect ours.
MC: Let’s imagine you’re the management person, and you’re talking to the union person. What do you say to them to open that line of communication?
SSO: I think it very much depends on who you’re dealing with. With United, we had coffee. And then through that next year, we would have some discussions off the record and try to find some common ground. Sometimes you go have a drink, and that can be helpful, too.
If you go in as a knock-’em-down-I-hate-’em type, you are never going to reach common ground. And to me, reaching common ground is the ultimate goal.
Hopefully you get a lot, or most, of what you want or need and the other side does, too. And sometimes that’s difficult to ascertain. Once you sit down with your team, whichever side you’re on, and you go over, OK, this is where we are. This is what I think it’ll take to get an agreement, and if you can get their buy-in and the other side’s negotiator can do the same thing, you’ll eventually get an agreement. It’s not really rocket science, it’s more dealing with personalities.
MC: If you’re the union person calling the management person to have that same conversation, is it exactly the same or do you have to play some nuance there because there’s a power imbalance?
SSO: There is in some ways a power imbalance, but in other ways there’s not. And if you look at my career, I’ve always initiated it, and that has been successful for me. I have a certain kind of personality. It really depends on what your personality and your beliefs are.
I’ve been on both sides, so I don’t necessarily judge the other side. I try to understand where they’re coming from and why they want certain things. And I think sometimes I’ve been successful in doing that, making them understand what our priorities are.
A union contract in a lot of ways is sort of like making stew. You throw a lot of things in it. When I did the United contract, for example, it was like 400-and-some pages long. It had been in existence for 20-some years, and some of it just didn’t make sense.
But some of it we had to keep in there because that was like a sacred cow to the flight attendants, and you just kind of have to balance.
MC: Are you a peacemaker in the rest of your life? You have this ability to reach out to people and connect with them and see their point of view. Is that true in your personal life as well, or other areas of your professional career?
SSO: I think so. I can get down and dirty if I have to. Sometimes I’ll say, “OK, we can do it the easy way. We can do it the hard way. I’d prefer to do it the easy way, but if you are bound and determined to do it the hard way, hey, go for it, big boy or big girl.”
III. WHAT THE OTHER SIDE NEEDS TO KNOW BUT DOESN’T
MC: I’m going to ask you some, compare and contrast questions now. The first one is kind of a sneaky question.
SSO: Uh oh.
MC: What “secrets” can you share about the union side that the management side doesn’t know but needs to?
SSO: If you are working with an international union, you have to understand what is important to the national or the international leaders because they will give things up in order to achieve the organization’s goals.
MC: Same question, other side. What “secrets” can you share about the management side that the union side doesn’t know but needs to?
SSO: On the management side, it’s also about leadership and what the leadership of the organization thinks of unions and how much they may or may not want to, say, give them a black eye.
I worked with one Chief Nursing Officer, and she didn’t like unions at all. So getting past her was difficult. So you kind of have to understand what management’s perspective is.
MC: Another compare and contrast question. What mistakes do you see that union negotiators make that you wish you could tell them to avoid?
SSO: They make promises to their membership that are not practical and not sustainable. They have to be able to manage their constituents. When I was in the airline industry, the Teamsters had some difficulty with managing some mechanics. And they really had to work at it and they didn’t do a great job. We finally got an agreement. You just have to manage those expectations—really on both sides.
MC: Same question on the management side. What mistakes do management negotiators make that they need to stop making?
SSO: They have to stop saying, “This is the absolute hard line. We can’t go beyond it.” You need to know, obviously, what the budget is and what different things that you negotiate cost, that sort of thing. But sometimes in order to get an agreement, you might switch one thing for something else. And it may not cost anything, it may not harm the operations. You have to be able to sometimes modify your position in order to get an agreement to address the other side’s issues, but not go beyond what your budget is. Every contract has compromises in it. It just does. And the sooner people understand that on both sides, the better off they’ll be.
IV. FROM GOOD RELATIONSHIPS COME GOOD CAREER OPPORTUNITIES
MC: Now I want to pivot and ask professional development type questions. As we’ve discussed, your career has not been a straight line in one area or one industry. You’ve been a senior staff attorney, you’ve been a vice president a couple times, a mediator with the EEOC. Walk me through how that happened. Did you seek out a wide variety of jobs or did it just happen that way?
SSO: It pretty much just happened. When I started with the airline industry as a flight attendant, I thought, this is going to be for a couple years, and when I became an officer and then went into management, that changed everything. They sent me to law school and then I went back to the union when the airline was purchased and then got recruited into the health-care industry.
I went back to school, and I got my post-doctorate degree in alternative dispute resolution. And that’s when I started doing some work for the EEOC. And then I was approached by another health-care organization. That was run by a person that I had worked with at Tenet, and then when I got approached by St. Joseph’s in Southern California, that’s because I had worked with someone at Tenet, and then I got recruited by Peace Health because I worked with a woman at St. Joe’s, so I pretty much have always been recruited into the positions.
MC: That’s an awful lot of relationships that you had where people wanted to work with you again. What were you doing right that people wanted to keep working with you, and they would call you and say, “Stephanie, come on, I got a gig for you?”
SSO: Well, I think because I’m good at what I do. Like you were saying, you seem like you’re kind of a peacemaker and I try to do it in a professional way, but yet get results. I usually like everyone I’m working with. There are very few people that I’ve worked with that I would say I may not have liked. But I could get along with them.
As your career goes on, you get to know more and more people on both sides. And that is what I think has made me successful. That is important to me. And I like people. I just like being around them and I have a lot of respect for the people that I work with, and I think that is mutual, which is why I think that has happened to me.
I mean, I’ve never had to go out and pound the sand.
MC: You went and got a postdoc degree in dispute resolution, which is pretty close to what you’re doing as a contract negotiator in the first place. Right? You’re resolving disputes before they even happen. What is the key to being able to do that successfully?
SSO: I think you have to have credibility and you have to know what you’re talking about. When I first got into the hospital industry, I had to learn that, and I was very fortunate that I had a woman who was willing to help me do that.
I went back to school because I thought I’ve always wanted to be an arbitrator. But then as I got into it, I thought, eh, I don’t really want to be an arbitrator.
MC: Why not?
SSO: I think it’s too structured. It’s a little more constrained when you have to make the decision, I think. As I went through the program for the year and a half that I did, it became clear to me that I’d rather be making the deals than making decisions on whether somebody gets their job back or what’s the interpretation of this contract mean?
MC: You like to be in on the action too much to do that, don’t you?
SSO: Yes, I do.
This AccelPro audio transcript has been edited and organized for clarity. This interview was recorded on September 14, 2023.
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