AccelPro | Employment & Labor Law
AccelPro | Employment Law
On Labor Negotiations Viewed from Both Sides

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On Labor Negotiations Viewed from Both Sides

With Stephanie Sloggett-O’Dell, former union member, union attorney and HR executive | Interviewed by Matt Crossman

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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.

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Interview References:



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.”

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