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Adversaries To Allies: Lessons From The San Diego City Schools Contract Negotiations

Interest-based negotiation has been hailed as the savior of the contract bargaining process, enabling parties to reach better deals and work better together to implement them. When parties using this approach assess their success, they often cite their ability to have a true “collaborative relationship” as an essential factor. However, insightful analysis and advice on this key element is not widely articulated and disseminated. Examining a highly successful contract negotiation, how specific relationships were built, and how those relationships impacted the substance of the outcome will provide more precise and operational guidelines for other negotiations. Specifically, this article supplies critical principles for any labor and management groups seeking to implement interest-based bargaining in a contentious environment.

The situation we will examine involves contract negotiations between the teachers’ union and management in the San Diego City Schools District (San Diego City Schools is the second largest school district in California, and one of the 15 largest in the US. In 1998, the district served 139,000 students who spoke a total of 56 languages, administered a budget of $809 million, and employed 6,617 teachers in 165 schools). In the spring of 1998, labor and management of San Diego City Schools overcame both difficult recent history and their own doubts about the interest-based process to create a successful educators’ contract for the 1998-2001 school years.

San Diego Schools History

In 1996, relations between the San Diego Teachers Association and San Diego City Schools District were spiraling downward. There had been numerous demonstrations of anger and personal attacks. The traditional concessional bargaining process used by the union and management was at a standstill. In February of 1996, the negotiations imploded, and the situation culminated in a horrific strike. The strike lasted five days before union and management announced a settlement. But before and during that time, emotions and hostilities had come to a head, and the psychological consequences of anger and personal attacks could not be erased with a written settlement. Parents, taxpayers, and the business community were concerned and vocal about their disgust with the situation. Parents formed a union, charges of racism occurred and people on all sides felt attacked, victimized, and hurt. Many people reported that the first few months after the strike was over were a horrible experience. Individuals knew that healing in the community had to take place; however, many didn’t know how to begin.

Fast forward to April 1, 1998. Sitting together at a press conference, the union and management teams joked with each other as Superintendent Bertha Pendleton and Union President Marc Knapp proudly announced a contract settlement. Not only were all pleased with the results, but this was also the first time in the District’s history that the two sides agreed to a contract before the previous one had expired. Parents who had formerly been in loud protest now stood and cheered the innovative solutions to improve teaching at the most difficult schools. The contract was praised by all parties as fiscally responsible and fair.

This accomplishment provides a window to the operational aspects of bitterly adversarial groups seeking to undertake the daunting tasking of achieving better outcomes AND better relationships. We will begin by examining the interconnection between the two.

The Importance Of Relationship

People often assume that a good working relationship is secondary in importance to the amount of available resources – that no matter how good a relationship is, it’s not as essential as adequate money in the budget, and other tangible resources. In our experience, however, we have found that it is precisely a good working relationship that allows parties to create value, especially in fiscally constrained circumstances. A good working relationship provides the collaborative spirit necessary to create the imaginative and resourceful options needed to satisfy many parties’ interests. When both sides are looking at scarce resources and a dissatisfied community as a shared problem, rather than focusing their energy on attacking each other, they generate better options.

Even people who recognize the value of a good working relationship often get off on the wrong foot because they assume a good relationship is defined by pleasant interactions and good humor. While these may be indications of a good working relationship, a good working relationship is defined this way: It moves the negotiation forward by 1) focusing on the common good or common ground, and 2) working through differences in a constructive manner. It is not about how much the parties like each other; it is about how well the parties can work with their commonalties and through their differences to achieve their goals.

The actions that individuals must undertake to create a good working relationship are specific to the context in which they are negotiating. We distinguish four general categories: a) the relationships among the leaders, b) the relationships among the bargainers, c) the relationships between bargainers and key stakeholders, and d) the relationships between bargainers and facilitators. We will take each in turn.

A. Between Leaders: Establishing A United Front

The Danger: Leaders can undermine collaboration by publicly attacking each other, by modeling and rewarding adversarial behavior, by lacking vision or direction, and by not focusing on the big picture. The hard work done by the leaders in San Diego on improving their own working relationships was an essential springboard to the success of the negotiations. It is also difficult work, because leaders are often those most directly implicated and affected by acrimony in the past. While the argument that leaders must take the first step seems straightforward, it is not always clear what actions leaders can actually take to create constructive working relationships. San Diego leaders took some effective actions:

Timely and Strategic Communications. Immediately after the 1996 strike settled, Union President Marc Knapp and Superintendent Bertha Pendleton contacted each other. The school board, led by President Ron Ottinger, also knew that producing a different result meant taking dramatic action. All knew that working together was the only way to change the atmosphere, to allow productive work on school sites and lay the foundation among labor and management for a less acrimonious and damaging round of future contract negotiations.

Strong and Consistent Signals. These San Diego leaders sent the community strong signals that they intended to try to work together, and expected others to begin working together as well. They stood together and spoke together at public forums, and refrained from undercutting each other. Union and management jointly brought together nearly every principal and union representative in the entire school district to discuss the recent history and involve them in creating a community vision. In addition, the group learned and practiced collaboration techniques. San Diego leadership successfully sent a consistent message that collaboration, not adversarialism, was desired at the school sites.

Staying the Course through Adverse Situations. All though the contract negotiations the San Diego leadership held back on publicly attacking each other. At times, this proved difficult. While the contract negotiations were going on, a different union-management project backfired, and the union president was furious. Normally, he would have penned an inflammatory letter to the newspaper that blasted the management and rallied his troops. However, he had made a commitment to hold back on public attacks while bargaining was in session. However tempted, he kept his word, and the talks continued.

B. Between Bargainers: Setting A Stage That Fosters Success

The Danger: As the negotiation teams got together to begin the next round of negotiations, they faced the difficult task of creating a process and outcome that would not revert to the acrimonious and stagnant pre-strike negotiations. This would be difficult as many feelings of anger and mistrust lay just under the surface. In addition, these negotiations were vital, as they would make or break the total collaborative efforts between union and management.

Any one of the following factors might have led the bargaining teams back toward a strike situation:

  • Bargainers feeling their time was being wasted
  • Bargainers feeling disengaged
  • Bargainers engaging fully in the effort and engendering trust, only to be betrayed by one another (or perceive themselves as betrayed) – leaving them feeling worse off for having attempted collaboration

Effective actions bargainers took to defeat these possibilities include:

Wise Choice of Team Members. The union and management bargaining teams were chosen carefully. They consisted of some experienced bargaining members who could provide substantive expertise. Also chosen were some new members who could help break the historically poor communication and relational patterns between the teams, and provide fresh ideas. Having high-level influential decision makers on each team (then Deputy Superintendent Frank Till and union executive director Robin Rose) helped in terms of buy-in and leadership. The chief negotiators (Rose for union and Ruth Peshkopf for management) were advocates and practitioners of the interest based approach. Finally, critics of the interest-based approach were also chosen, as they would be ensured of an insider’s view of the process. Thus other skeptics outside the room could be assured that individuals they trusted were a part of the process, able to view it critically and “keep it honest” – lending credibility to the process as a whole.

Facilitation. Since the process by which people negotiate can determine the success of any deal, it is essential to think consciously about how to set up the bargaining process. The bargaining teams had already tried an interest-based approach, without continuous outside facilitation, with very mixed results. This time, the teams brought in neutral facilitators as experts in the interest-based approach and to keep the group on track to meet its goals. The negotiation teams later identified the third party facilitators as crucial to helping parties through the rough periods.

Level-Setting. The bargaining teams did not jump right into bargaining. Instead, they spent three days getting on the same page, and getting to know each other and the facilitators, as they were trained in and practiced collaboration techniques. During that time they also embarked on their first joint project: They created a Procedural Contract, a document that identifies the goals of the group and the rules they would use to reach their goals (see box). Categories included how individuals would discuss their negotiations with parties not in the room; how they would behave when they got angry; and how they would make decisions.

Agreement on How to Interact. A Procedural Contract can be an essential tool for establishing a collaborative environment for three reasons. First, it serves as a guide for one’s own behavior in tough situations. Second, it removes some fear and uncertainty about other people’s likely actions. In addition, showing the document to key stakeholders, such as each side’s board, helps the third parties understand and buy into the “rules of the game, ” so they can consciously support, rather than inadvertently undermine, the collaboration process. In San Diego, the Procedural Contract was the group’s first successful collaboration, and it set the stage for later, larger successes.

Physical Environment. Creating a more collaborative negotiation means creating a more comfortable environment. The physical environment is no exception. People are the most creative when they were comfortable enough to focus on the task at hand. In San Diego, the teams did their best to keep the hours reasonable, the chairs soft, and the food readily available. All found this to be very effective in moving the negotiations forward.

Tackling Issues. The group had more than 30 issues to discuss, ranging from wages and mentor teachers to transfer and sick leave policies. A calendar was created; topics were scheduled for certain days; prep work was provided in advance; and topic experts were scheduled in. The group tackled the simpler, less emotionally loaded issues first, to establish a pattern of collaborative negotiation and develop relationships under less stressful circumstances. The key to keeping the group focused and productive was to introduce a new issue every day, whether the last issue was finished or not. As a result, the group would not get bogged down on one issue and run out of time. Unfinished issues were assigned to a subcommittee made of union and management team members, and time for the subcommittees to meet was built into the process.

Defining Commitments. Making-commitments-as-you-go on issues in a complex negotiation usually becomes a process trap. Often, if a group commits to issues one at a time, by the time the group reaches the last few issues, their prior commitments may have boxed one team in a corner. But the usual remedy — re-opening issues settled earlier — often feels to the other side like foul play. Another trap associated with the commit-as-you-go method is backlash from either team’s board – forcing a team to come back to the table and renege on their commitment. This undermines their credibility and authority. For these reasons, it is essential to make no firm commitments on any issue until the agreement is workable in whole. In addition, we encourage teams to refrain from using the words “tentative agreement, ” which implies different levels of commitment depending on who you ask. In San Diego, the bargaining team defined and used another term, “Yesable Proposition, ” to indicate that everyone on the bargaining team liked the option, and the option would stand for the time being but could change if the union or management board did not approve it, or another issue down the road affected it.

Separating the Relationships from the Problem. There has been a considerable amount written about the importance of separating the problem at hand from the individuals engaged in it. The hope is to avoid at least two pitfalls: blaming one another for the problem and taking the situation personally, or sacrificing what the parties really need for the sake of preserving the relationship.

It is our experience, however, that these pitfalls are hard for many of us to avoid, as our senses of the problem-solving and relationship aspects of negotiation are often very entwined. The San Diego case offers a powerful example of the effectiveness of separating the relationships from the problem, applying energy to improvement of both, without letting one adversely impact the other.

The parties at the table had a series of discussions about salary compensation. One day, after perhaps the most difficult conversation, they were scheduled to appear together at an evening celebratory event. It was an event designed to illustrate the strengths of their new working relationship – a talent show for which they had planned a funny, raucous joint skit. Surprisingly, they went to the talent show – and actually enjoyed doing the skit. They returned to the bargaining table that same night to work further on the problem, and the conversation continued to be hard and challenging.

In this instance, they honored the social commitment they had made, and did not allow the genuine bottom-line problem they faced about compensation to degenerate into recriminations and personal attacks. Also, they did not let the friendly nature of the event they attended dull their advocacy for their needs the next day.

Perhaps the cliché that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger does not apply here. In tough situations it is how you handle it that makes you stronger or weaker. This situation made the negotiation teams stronger. They benefited from it because they were honoring their word and agreement. If they had handled it poorly, they may have been weakened by it.

C. Between Parties At The Table And Key Stakeholders: Building Credibility And Cooperation

The Danger: The success of an exceptional contract that has been agreed to by all at the negotiation table is undermined if the union or management’s governing board vetoes it, or if parents, taxpayers, or other groups protest it.

Even when the key parties are working well with each other, the work still can be torpedoed by stakeholders not at the table. Especially when the parties at the table are beginning to work with each other, certain stakeholders may become more suspicious and wary of the process. Some helpful actions include:

Education. Prior to the contract negotiations, many of the stakeholders, parents, teachers, union representatives, principals, community and religious leaders were invited to collaborative skills training seminars. ThoughtBridge conducted two seminars with approximately 400 people in each. Past and potential critics of contract bargaining were present. The superintendent, union president, and school board president spoke together of the need to move beyond the strike and to work with each other. This broad exposure to the interest-based approach served the negotiation well, because a larger segment community becomes more familiar with the collaborative approach.

Third Party Communications. Essential to creating an environment of teamwork and joint problem solving is minimizing damage caused by outside influences. In San Diego, the bargaining team agreed to keep discussion of any bargaining conflicts inside the room. The group also developed procedural guidelines for handling these conflicts constructively.

Minimize Surprises. Another way to minimize third party damage to negotiations is to get prior agreement from stakeholders regarding the scope of the teams’ authority to bargain, and to minimize stakeholder surprise by keeping all stakeholders informed of the progress of the negotiations. In San Diego, the superintendent, union president, and union and school boards were kept informed throughout, and the larger audience of parents and businesspeople were kept informed through press releases jointly crafted by union and management.

Engaging Key Constituencies, Especially Skeptics of the Process. Because the school board needed to approve any contractual agreements and because there was concern that the board and negotiation teams might not see eye to eye on certain issues, the teams initiated a presentation for the board to update them on progress and status of the negotiations. This presentation sent the signal to the board that the teams were truly trying to work with each other. The board, while still skeptical, saw the seriousness of intent. Interestingly, this event provided another opportunity to the union and management teams to work together and enhance their cross-team relationships.

This presentation, along with the fact that the management team had continuous interaction with the school board, made it easier during a difficult time. As “agents” of the board, the management team continually probed for the board’s interests and reality tested the positions and demands of the board. When the management team became convinced that under current circumstances a deal was impossible, the management team renegotiated with the school board for new parameters–parameters that they believed would create an avenue for an option that would work. For the school board members, who had been kept in the loop all along, this was not a surprise; their role and duty as enabler was clear; and they were open to the management team’s request. Thus the communication process the teams had put in place paid off when they needed it.

The union team also had a constituency to answer to – the union’s representative assembly. Certainly, the representative assembly was concerned with the possibility that the union team was “giving in” to the management team. The union met regularly with its representative assembly to hear the assembly’s concerns and update the assembly about the progress of negotiations, defusing some of these fears. It is here that the (now former) critics chosen for the team were the most persuasive. These critics were experienced and successful in adversarial and positional bargaining, and therefore commanded much credibility with the representative assembly.

D. Between Parties At The Table And The Facilitator: Creating Focus, Flexibility, And Movement

The Danger: Facilitators either losing control of the process or exerting too much control, critics who will not allow the facilitator to facilitate, bargainers who are not prepared to solve problems on their own after the facilitator is gone.

A good working relationship between the facilitators and the bargainers will make or break the facilitation. Some helpful strategies:

Multiple Facilitators. Having at least two facilitators is wise for a number of reasons. Complex issues demand a lot of attention and intake and processing of information. Multiple parties means multiple individuals asking facilitators for different things at the same time; and these requests range from mediating a difficult interpersonal relationship to requests to change the room temperature. All this is handled better by two than one. Having two facilitators allows one to observe group and individual behavior while the other facilitates; and allows the facilitators to jointly design and debrief each session. In addition, the facilitators’ interaction with each other models the collaborative behavior that the facilitators request of bargainers. In San Diego, one facilitator attended each side’s private caucuses, and dealt with intra-team alignment issues. Finally, having two facilitators allows each to take mental breaks from bargainers that allow for reflection, creativity, and insight.

Engaging Critics of the Process. Facilitators must build credibility with potential critics of the interest-based approach. In San Diego, the facilitators’ recognition of the important role of critics and solicitation of their expertise and advice assisted the process. Over time, critics could sense the facilitators’ respect for their experiences and points of view, and they in turn respected the facilitators.

Fishing While Helping Bargainers Learn to Fish. Good facilitation poses a paradox between short-term and long-term goals. On the one hand, it is the job of the facilitator to help solve the conflict at hand by guiding the group and actively directing conversations in productive directions. On the other hand, it is the job of the facilitator to enhance the collaborative problem solving skills of the bargainers themselves so that they can more constructively handle their differences in the future.

Dealing with this paradox is achieved by altering the facilitator’s role over the course of the negotiations, as the bargainers’ relationships with each other evolve. At the beginning, when the conflict is looming, the history is bad, and the interest-based process is an untried experiment, the facilitator takes an active, leading role as a neutral assistant to move the process forward. In the beginning of the San Diego contract negotiations, the facilitators focused on two activities: modeling collaborative behavior with one another and with the group, and taking an active hand in the course of the conversations – repeating for understanding, reframing, and defusing individual interactions.

As bargainers engage in the collaborative process, they learn how to behave more collaboratively. In addition, relationships develop, progress is made, and they observe other bargainers behaving more collaboratively. These factors help each bargainer become collaborative in a self-directed manner. Thus, as time goes on, the facilitators’ intervention can be less directive. In San Diego, by the end of the process, the facilitators stepped in only at very difficult moments. The facilitators considered it a mark of success that the group was having productive conversations and solving problems on its own.


Three overarching lessons from the San Diego City School District experience are as follows:

1. Think broadly about the range of relationships you will need to engage in. Throw the doors wide open; think as widely as you can. Include in your thoughts every party whose disapproval could sink the deal, or whose disapproval could make the implementation of the deal difficult.

2. Engage each party at an appropriate level. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of support will I need from this party?
  • What might their goals and needs be?
  • What might they fear?
  • How can I assuage that fear?

Be sure that your communication and engagement strategies take the answers to these questions into consideration.

3. In every working relationship, employ the following strategies:

  • Actively communicate with all critical parties
  • Engage critics of the process
  • Separate the relationships from the problem

Building good working relationships at every level moves negotiations forward. How to build these relationships, and with whom, is not often articulated. We hope this article will help you to obtain better working relationships, and ultimately, better outcomes.

Author’s Note: GMC-Saturn recently awarded San Diego School District second place in the coveted Labor-Management Cooperation Award for the 1998 contract negotiations.


Grande Lum

Grande Lum is the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Menlo College in Atherton, California. Prior to joining Menlo, he was Director of the Divided Community Project (DCP) at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Previously, Grande Lum was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed… MORE >


Monica Christie

Mr. Lum and Ms. Christie facilitated the 1998 San Diego Teachers' Contract Negotiations. Accordence is a consulting and training firm headquartered in Burlingame, CA. Accordence can be reached at (650) 292-4922 or [email protected] MORE >

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