Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Feeling a little sorry for the CTU's Karen Lewis

CTU President Karen Lewis
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is not the warm and fuzzy sort. Her remarks to the press are often inflammatory and nearly always caustic. But right now I feel a little sorry for her. Let me explain.

As a civil lawyer, I negotiate settlements in cases. Most cases never go to trial; most are settled, some without filing suit, some on the courthouse steps or while the jury is deliberating, and the rest in between.

But negotiation is a two-way street. I don't mean that both parties at the table have to give some, although that's true. Rather, I'm referring to the communication that has to take place from the negotiator to his or her opposite number and the communication that has to flow back to the client in the course of negotiations.

It's called 'managing expectations.' Managing expectations means is that I have to make sure my client doesn't believe my bluster (what I'm telling the other side) and that my client understands that, when I take him or her aside to discuss where things are going or where I think they may wind up, that's the part the client should believe. I educate my client on where I think we're going and my client educates me on what he or she can live with.

Settlement negotiations are often compared to artillery barrages. Overshoot -- demand too much -- and the other side stays comfortably entrenched, unconcerned, certain that, in the worst case, they won't lose as much as you're demanding. Undershoot -- demand too little -- and you wind up hurting your own cause, like artillery shells falling short on one's own advancing troops. But when your fire is properly targeted, that's when you can see the other side start to squirm: They evaluate the case similarly. When your opponent sees you asking for something that they think you're likely to get (always a range, you understand) they have to weigh the cost of resisting your demand vs. the prospect of losing the deal plus the cost of getting to trial (and, always, the possibility that the jury may do something really adverse).

Labor negotiations add a level of complexity. Tort or contract cases are about money. Some amount will get the deal done. But labor negotiations will have a money component and, often, lots of other issues as well. Take the current Chicago Public Schools strike. According to various accounts, the issues under discussion include base salaries and
  • When textbooks will come in;
  • Air conditioning in older schools;
  • Coordinating school schedules (some schools start sooner than others; some are on a year-round schedule);
  • School closings;
  • Student test scores and how these will impact school closings, teacher firings, and teacher re-hirings;
  • Re-hiring laid off teachers;
  • Hiring new teachers to cover the previously negotiated longer school day;
  • Seniority raises (lanes and steps); and
  • Teacher evaluations (and how these are going to be impacted by student test scores).
A proposed merit pay system was also on the table at one point, but CPS allegedly caved on that one.

The point is, there were all of these issues floating around (when Mayor Emanuel insisted there were only two points of disagreement, Lewis, characteristically said there were 50) and different members have different expectations regarding each point. And there isn't one client, there are 700 or 800 members of the Union's House of Delegates which must recommend this deal back to the teachers in the various schools.

Were all of these varying expectations adequately managed? Could they be?

The way I read this is that Lewis and the Union's negotiating team are not wildly enthusiastic about the tentative deal. Saying 'this is the best deal we could get' is not the same thing as saying 'this is a great deal and we wholeheartedly endorse and recommend it.' So Ms. Lewis and her team are lukewarm -- and she may have found her delegates even colder. But what she didn't say is that she was not recommending the deal.

Lawyers do this sometimes: We go through a negotiation and we get the best offer we can. We don't like it. We think it is insufficient. We tell the other side we don't like the deal and can't recommend it but, because we have an ethical duty to take it back to our client; it is always the client's decision to settle or fight on. So we tell the client, 'this is the best deal we could get but we don't recommend it.' If the client doesn't take the deal, we have lost no face with the other side; indeed, the other side knows that the client is really under our control (they may also think we're both stupid, but that's another story).

But I didn't hear -- despite her lack of enthusiasm -- Lewis say that she's not recommending the current deal. Therefore, if Lewis can't sell this deal to her own House of Delegates, she may well be done as CTU President. Oh, she may continue in office for awhile -- but her authority would be gone. The Board will conclude, and reasonably so, that she no longer speaks for her members.

The CTU's House of Delegates meets this afternoon. How that meeting might turn out is anyone's guess.

1 comment:

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

interesting points (that i would not have considered)...

smiles, bee