Monday, 11 July 2016

How to negotiate a pay claim

(Written over many days, but finished on 11/7/2016)

Some weeks ago, I wrote a few lines on negotiating skills. The article has been read by quite a lot of people, so I thought I'd add something about winning a pay and conditions claim, because most people don't understand what actually happens until the claim goes wrong.

I spent nearly twenty years at varying levels in one of the trade unions that negotiated in the electricity industry. After ten years on the Branch Executive, I was trusted enough to take a junior place on the committee that negotiated the annual pay and conditions claim directly with the employers. It was a depressing experience. The senior members of the committee would meet a week or so before the meeting with the employers, pluck a percentage pay rise out of apparently nowhere, suggest a few improvements to holiday entitlement, bolt on a demand for a 35 hour week and that was it.

They'd then present the claim to the employers, who would politely note that it appeared to have been written on the back of a fag packet, and then withdraw to discuss it. Once both sides had emptied the coffee jugs, the employers would return, offer a different, lower percentage, a few cosmetic changes to the conditions of employment and reject the 35 hour week out of hand. Then there'd be a two hour discussion that could be boiled down to "Aw, c'mon, you can afford it!" "No, we can't, and we're being generous because we value our staff." Eventually, concessions were made by both sides and an agreement was reached around a figure that some of us suspected the employers had been aiming for all along.

Several of us junior members of the negotiating committee were annoyed at the way it all happened and felt that there had to be a better way. Time wounds all heels, of course, and several years later all the senior negotiating committee members either died of stress-induced heart attacks (not joking, three did) or retired, and we junior members got to have a go. And we got to explore a better way - after coming up with A Plan.

By this time, the electricity industry had been privatised, and we were in the grip of The Market. That's why we went to our full-time union officers and said "We need to know how The Market works! Organise some education, not with union activists, but with stockbrokers, pensions fund managers and the like. Teach us not only why people choose to invest in our company, but how company accounts work, so that we can talk to our employers in the language they now speak!"

Sad to say, our individual union branches within the company had not been very active in the years up to the Great Dinosaur Cull, which meant that many electricity branches in my Region had massive bank balances. This was all in The Plan, as the junior, now sole, members of the negotiating committee went back to their branches and suggested merging them all. It took about six months to do, but it happened, and all the junior activists managed to secure seats on the new Executive. I was elected Branch Secretary and Lead Negotiator, which was part of The Plan, plus no other bugger wanted the job.

Now that our expanded Branch had access to all those funds, we were able to employ a part-time Branch Assistant. His major qualification for the post was that he was a part-qualified accountant, and, crucially, he knew how to read the fine detail in company accounts.

So - now for the pay claim. It had to feature many aspects. Firstly, it had to be logical and easy to understand, something that could be explained in a couple of sentences to both members and the media. No matter how good you think your negotiating skills are, always remember that you might have to get your point across on a picket line to a reporter on a short deadline, or to the viewers of the Six O'Clock News in the ten seconds you're allowed on the picket line before the employers have their minute's worth in the studio. Secondly, it had to demolish the expected "We can't afford it" argument, which was why our Branch Assistant spent several days at Companies House digging through the fine detail of the latest company accounts to (hopefully) prove that they could afford it. Thirdly, it had to demonstrate that there was a new team in town - no more scribbled lists of demands, it had to be a professional looking document that could stand comparison with any company communication. Fourthly, it had to stand up to financial scrutiny and demonstrate that the key management ratios that investors use to determine investment wouldn't be adversely affected. Fifthly, it had to be not only what our members wanted, but what they thought would be fair. You've got more chance of securing industrial action when the members think they're on the fair side and that the employers are being unfair.

Yes, a good negotiator ought to never need industrial action, but you've got to keep as many cards up your sleeve as possible. If the employers think industrial action is a strong possibility, that's worth nine tenths of actually taking action, plus your members don't lose any pay.

As for the actual pay claim, we decided to go for 6%. We based this figure on one of the management ratios, namely the one that divides annual net profit by the number of employees to find how much profit each employee has contributed. Investors check this to make sure that the profit per employee is rising rather than falling. In the previous year, every employee had been responsible for £93,852 profit (yes, I have the original documents in front of me!) That profit per employee figure had risen in just one year to £134,930. In other words, in the year just gone, each employee had added more than £40,000 to company profits. An average 6% pay raise for a member of staff represented less than three per cent of that extra £40,000 profit they'd created.

That satisfied quite a lot of our objectives. It was easy to understand, it seemed very fair, and it could be explained quite quickly - "Every one of our members increased their productivity by a minimum of £40,000 and we feel that our employers can afford to give 3% of the improved profits back to us." Who could object to that?

It also had value for muddying the waters if the pay claim had to be fought through the media. What did we want, 3% or 6%? "We want three per cent of the extra profits our members have created for the company. Company sales staff are given 10% commission, we're asking for less than half that."

Yes - 3% of £40,000 per employee would mean slightly more than a 6% increase across the board for all staff wages, but as long as we stuck to the magic 3% figure, our employers would look financially incompetent if they went to the media and complained about being held to ransom for a 6% increase. What's more, they'd have to use some fancy arguments and a whiteboard to explain how our wanting 3% of improved profits was actually a 6% pay claim, and The Great British Public tends to write off fancy arguments as squirming. What's more, their argument could be collapsed by a journalist asking "But do you pay your sales staff 10% commission?"

No matter that the "sales staff" we were talking about were unpaid volunteers from the workforce who chose to knock on doors some evenings and sell our electricity in hopes of receiving 10% of the first quarterly bill as payment. No matter that the average wage increase nationally was somewhere between 3.5% and 4% - and that if we'd secured a 4% increase, our members would cheer us to the pylon tops - this was a campaign we could all go out and SELL!

Where, though, could we get the money from? Increasing the company wage bill by 6% when other electricity companies were settling for 3% or less would be resisted strongly by the employers because it would send a very wrong message to The City. "Um, that's no problem", said our clever Branch Assistant. "I've found £30 million in the accounts that hasn't been declared in the profits. It's just sitting there at the moment, although I think it's being reserved to fund redundancies."

Er - what? "The company revalued the pension scheme last year and found that there was a surplus of £30m. So they took the surplus back and hid it in the accounts. Took me several days to find it, but it's there alright. Whenever they want to persuade older staff to take early retirement, there's a big pot they can use to purchase their agreement. What's more, they probably don't want people to know about it."

(How to reduce the company salary bill - if staff are on an incremental salary based on good service, persuade the older ones at the top of their scale to take "enhanced" early retirement and hire some young people who will join at the bottom of the scale. The job still gets done, it just gets done cheaper. Redundancy payments are not classed as salary in company accounts, so the net effect as far as investors are concerned is that salary costs have gone down. Large drinks all round, chaps!)

So there we had it. A good campaign that would play well in the media if it had to go that far, a claim that our members would see as being entirely fair, and one that could be funded from a fairly secret stash that we could bet our employers wouldn't want revealed. It was a claim that would stand up very well to financial scrutiny - "We want this much and you can get it from here."

The principal negotiators got to work, and drafted the document that would be our pay and conditions claim. It was an honest assessment of the financial worth of the company based on key statistics taken from the Annual Report, with management and financial ratios presented in such a way as to suggest the company was fairly awash with spare cash that could be used to meet the pay claim and the £30m slush fund referred to, but hidden among other detail. If anyone from the management side noticed it, we hoped they'd groan "They've found the money!" and leave our employers scrabbling to find an adequate "We can't afford it" response. But, oh! - if they didn't... when they presented the "Can't afford it" argument across the table, we'd just say "But we showed you where the money can come from, it's from the £30m you took from the pension fund." Now, having the employers scrabbling in private to find a decent response is quite a good thing, but having them trying to find such a response when they are across the table from you is a much better thing, especially as one of their junior members might blurt out some ridiculous explanation that can later be reported as "Management say..."

(A quick note on how The Table works. Both sides usually have just one lead negotiator, and those are the only two people who speak, although anyone is allowed to say whatever they want to, in theory. There are about ten people on each side, but each side’s nine silent members act as advisers to the lead negotiator and pass notes to her/him indicating points that they would like made. They range from the helpful ("Remind him that he said the opposite last year, so which is it?") through the bizarre ("What about the Salisbury problem? Press them on this!") to the frankly insulting ("SHUT UP, YOU GONK!"). Discipline is all-important. If one of your trusted colleagues opens their stupid pie-hole and says something damaging, the correct response is to immediately say "Can we have a five minute comfort break?" This is always agreed immediately, but the other side knows that the damage has been done and that the trusted colleague has been taken outside and is now having the living snot beaten out of him/her. One of our best tactics was to goad our short-tempered Managing Director - not the management side lead negotiator, as you will soon realise - to fury, when he was likely to say something deeply insulting; at which the lead negotiator and even-tempered Personnel Director would call for a ten minute cigarette break. In our private moments when negotiating one to one, the Personnel Director would refer to such breaks as "Getting Joe out of the room and hosing him down.")

We had the 6% pay rise sorted, explained, costed and justified, but then there were the "extras" to be decided. Union negotiators have to deliver, because if they don't, they don't get elected next time round, so sometimes it's easier to deliver an average pay claim topped off with a few extras the members weren't expecting. Like another day added to annual holiday entitlement, enhanced meal allowances or the deletion of a few of the lower points of the pay scales, which helps low-paid members. We tried to be fairly creative. It was National policy to include a claim for a 35 hour week, so we attached the usual form of words, in the triumph of hope over experience.

It's important to give management some "wiggle room". Hand in a list of demands that you're committed to, play the hard wo/man and refuse to give ground on any of them - well, then, you're in for a long fight. And, trust me on this, you'll lose.

Even if you get everything you want after months of negotiating, they're going to kill you next time. Oh, and if you get everything you want quite easily, you've pitched your claim too low. So your members are going to kill you rather more quickly.

Give management some hopeful claims, though, make sure you can defend them but be prepared to sacrifice them, and the other side will think they've won a few battles while they lost the war. Er - I mean, while they conceded your well-argued case, obviously.

We submitted our "extras" to the same financial scrutiny we'd applied to the central 6% salary increase, and added those arguments to the Annual Review of Pay and Conditions, as our document was still called. Not the snappiest of titles, we needed a better one. Once we'd thought of it (wait, it's coming), we gave the much amended draft to our Branch Chair. He worked in the Corporate Communications Department, where all the shiny company reports were produced, printed and bound, and where he had access to what was then called desktop publishing software, quality paper, a couple of major Xerox printers that were the equivalent of offset litho machines for any ancient inkies that understand such terms and some kit that can bind printed documents. In other words, our printed pay claim was made on the same equipment that had been used to produce our company's Annual Report and Accounts. My, it looked good.

When we met the employers, they were mildly confused when we handed out what looked like a slim brochure for some luxury timeshare opportunity. Then they noticed the company logo next to the union logo, under the title "Sharing The Success". They were told that this contained the staff side's claim for better conditions, based on the increasing profitability of the company. Crucially, they were told that copies of the document had been released to every union representative across the company, and that the details were even now being shared among their employees.

(That had been a costly headache. We'd arranged for parcels to be delivered to every company location that morning, and each parcel contained several sealed envelopes, each one addressed to a local union rep. Inside was a copy of the document and a letter signed by their Branch Secretary that summarised the claim and placed an embargo on revealing the details before 09:30 that morning, lest they be separated from their breath. The actual wording was probably more tactful than that, but there was certainly a blade within the velvet.)

The employers did as they usually did, called for a break and invited us to make free with the coffee jugs. Fifteen minutes later, one of their junior negotiators popped in to say "Um, they say this is taking a bit longer than usual, so if you want to nip out for a fag, feel free." We did; gleefully.

Fully one hour later, the employers indicated that they were ready to resume the negotiation. Their reply was simple: "We are unable to respond without detailed consideration of your arguments. Can we meet again this time next week?" said the Lead Negotiator Personnel Director - "And, Babba... can I see you in my office? Now?"

Oh no, you can't. Some negotiations are done in private, usually the ones that start "Look, we've buggered things up with this one, how can we sort it out?" When you're leading a team of ten, everything of significance has to be done in front of them. Personnel Director Steve understood my concern and agreed to take a fag break with us. For someone we'd hoped would be really rather concerned, he actually wanted to congratulate us.

"We've been asking for this kind of claim for years!" he said. "Something based on fact rather than emotion, something we can properly argue with! Joe was very impressed with your command of finance and particularly wanted to say 'Well done'. He also wanted me to pass on the message, 'In your dreams, you amateurs.' Mind, he's also told Catering to provide bacon rolls for next week's meeting as well as the coffee jugs, so let's see what happens then, eh?" Before he left, Steve took time to shake hands with every member of the staff side negotiating committee. Oh, good old Steve, friend of the unions - he never missed a trick, the clever bastard.

A week later, we all gathered at Head Office again to hear managements' response. It was slickly complimentary, full of praise for "embracing the Company’s changed trading position", our "understanding of how the market works" and our "command of the complex nature of corporate finance". In the background, I fancied I heard the dying moans of some dinosaurs, but we were there to make a deal with our equals, not enjoy the "Jolly well done, boys!" speech of our masters. All I wanted to know was how far over the barrel we'd got them.

Quite far, we assumed, as they opened negotiations by saying that our very professional claim deserved the respect of a properly considered full and final response; which, after much flummery, turned out to be 4%, no extras and nothing off the working week. (See earlier mention of being cheered to the pylon tops if we'd secured 4%.)

We thanked them for their very helpful response and asked for a short break to consider it. I hustled my mob away as quickly as possible, lest some fool start celebrating or congratulating their lead negotiator and thereby give the game away.

"Fag break, folks", I said as soon as we were outside, "We'll give them five minutes to think we'll accept." Some of the first-time negotiators reacted with disbelief - "We're not going to turn 4% down? That's above what we agreed to settle for!" Oh yes we were, but that needs a little explanation.

When negotiating, you have to have what's called a "bottom line", a figure or set of conditions that you won't go below. In the case of this pay claim, we'd set that at 3%. The employers do the same, except that they set a "top line", a figure they won't go beyond. The fun of negotiating is that neither side knows the others "bottom/top line" and the difference between the two is where the real negotiating happens. We hadn't "agreed to settle" for 3%, that was our agreed bottom line. That detail was swiftly explained to our junior members, together with one of the great rules of negotiating, namely - you never, ever, under any circumstances, accept the first offer. That's the employers' best hope of limiting the damage, and they still have ground to give. No matter that there may be several million pounds on the table for you to take, if you can get just one pound more, you're doing the job your members trusted you to do for them.

As for the five minute time limit for our break, that was important, too. Five minutes was enough for:

"Shall we take the money?"
"No way!"
"Right, let's go back and tell them."
"Hang on, can I finish my fag?"
"Yeah, why not?"

More than five minutes meant potential arguments among the staff side, giving the employers the idea that they could perhaps exploit the disagreement and split the staff negotiators. In the short term, that meant that they'd put out some hopeful feelers towards our inexperienced members that had nothing to do with the staff Lead Negotiator's arguments - like a junior manager saying "But, Annie, didn't you say last week that...?" or "Sorry, - but Frank, didn't you tell me that...?" and trying to tempt those junior negotiators into responding.

In the long term that meant no deal that day, come back next week once our managers have had a chance to grill every staff side negotiator on a one-to-one basis with friendly coffee and "What's said here stays here, of course" nonsense.

Discipline is vital, as is the perception of discipline. Five minutes had to be the extent of the break.

We went back in, rejected the 4% out of hand and invited the employers to make a more realistic offer, given our members' clear increase in productivity, and God bless 'em, the employers went into full "We can't afford it/We can't send that message to The Market" mode. We invited them to look at our figures again, where we'd shown that they could easily afford it, and what's more, they wouldn't send any message to The Market. The employers' baffled looks meant that they hadn't twigged the pension fund cash pot, but they took a break anyway.

They took twenty minutes. In other words, either they were split on a better offer, or they couldn't see where the money was. There was a potential third option; they'd seen where the money was and were frantically trying to construct an argument against using it that had to avoid the "We're going to use that to fund redundancies that we haven't told you about" excuse.

When the employers returned, they began by restating their "very generous" offer, and acknowledging our command of finance. "But that command only goes so far" they said, and restated the concern they had about sending the wrong message to The City. We didn't understand management ratios properly, and there was nothing in our claim that justified going beyond 4% - although, if it would bring an end to the negotiations, they could go as far as 4.2%, one-time offer, take it now or it would be gone forever.

No need for a break to consider that one, I rejected it out of hand; "Because we've clearly shown you where the money to fund this claim can come from... but if you want chapter and verse, look at page 17 and our mention of the £30m you took from the pension fund surplus." Given the looks on the faces of some managers, I knew that a significant blow had been landed. You see, ever since Maxwell, employers have been super-careful about taking money from their employees' pension funds.

Management immediately called a break. Ten minutes later, they suggested that now would be a good time for lunch, and to resume at 2 p.m., so that meant at least an hour to wait for their response. Except... management Lead Negotiator Steve found me and asked for a "side meeting". Now, that's a little different to "Can I see you in my office?" It's a way of exploring an offer without actually making a formal offer. I said that I'd need another member of my negotiating team in the room to witness that I didn't sell the staff down the river, and a few minutes to explain to the rest of the staff side how significant a side meeting was - and to beg them to trust me.

A side meeting is never mentioned in the minutes of any discussion, and technically, it doesn’t exist and never took place. It allows both sides to speak their minds without fear of being quoted, though, and it usually involves an exchange along the lines of “If we do X, will you do Y?” Of course, each side can still say “No” and return to open negotiations across the table, but a request for a side meeting is often an indication of a major offer by one side or the other.

As it proved when we met in Steve’s office. “Look, you’re not going to get 6%, it’s above anything we’re prepared to settle for”, he said. “I can go to 5%, but only if you can promise your side will accept it with no further argument.” I suggested that he could go a little further and offer 5.5% (never accept the first offer, remember?), and that if he did the staff side would happily accept. (Happily? They’d be ecstatic!)

Rather than replying, Steve changed the subject. We’d circulated the pay claim to our representatives across the company. Had we made clear to them that we wanted a share of the £30m pension fund surplus? Ah ha, so that was a sensitive issue, as we’d hoped. No, Steve, they got exactly the same booklet you got - and your side didn’t spot it, did they? No, we are not telling the staff that you’ve had thirty million quid out of what they think is their pensions.

But we will if your side doesn’t settle this claim today. Don’t send us home empty-handed.

Steve gave every impression of thinking carefully, and then said that he could try to get the offer up to 5.2%, but it might take a little time. I said that I might be able to get my side to accept 5.4%, but the employers would have to offer some inducements from our “extras” list.

Steve grinned, and said “So you and I are going to have to get our people to accept 5.3%, then?

5.3%, an extra day’s holiday across the board and an employee savings scheme for the next five years that will allow them to buy shares at today’s prices in five years’ time.  The employers will throw in one free share for every ten the staff buy under the scheme.

You’re a hard bastard, Babba”, Steve grinned.

I’ll take that as a compliment.

It was meant as one. OK, 5.3%, no change to the holidays, and we'll talk about the share scheme next month so that we can take the credit for the idea.

I can lose the holiday if you’ll replace that with a form of words for next months’ agenda offering an opportunity to discuss ways that staff can profit from investing in the company. Then we can both take the credit for it. We’ll even write a paper for the meeting.


And so it proved. My witness from the staff side confirmed to the rest of the staff negotiators that in her opinion I’d got the best deal possible, and they were amazed that we were looking to settle for 5.3%, let alone getting the employers to swallow the share save scheme. It was probably the biggest item on our “extras” list and resulted in our members making many thousands of pounds each five years later.

So then it was down to waiting for the management side. A little before 4 p.m. they indicated that they were prepared to respond again, and offered 5% for an immediate agreement. (Remember, the side meeting never happened, and sometimes you have to go through the motions just for the minutes.) I restated the case for 6%, but indicated that we’d settle for 5.3% if it meant agreement that afternoon.

Thus it was that a deal was struck and my team brought home the highest percentage pay rise in the electricity industry that year without changing the all-important management ratios by one penny.

In the weeks that followed, I took a congratulatory call from the union’s Head of Electricity, was invited to be keynote speaker at the union’s National Electricity Group Meeting (and this lengthy tale has been assisted by my notes from that speech), and my negotiating team were feted back in their workplaces.

So what did we learn? Apart from negotiating is fun?

We learned that you have to do all the work for the employers and show them exactly how the proposed pay and conditions claim can be funded. We learned that you have to justify the claim by means of strong financial arguments. We learned that you have to have someone who can go through accounts with a fine-toothed comb, because if someone’s hidden some cash, you need to know where it is. We learned that it really helps if you can discover some aspect of your employer’s business that they’d rather not make public. We learned that you have to be at least as good as the other side when making presentations. We learned the value of discipline, to keep quiet no matter how much of a gonk the Lead Negotiator seems to be, because s/he probably has A Plan.

And we learned that negotiation at senior levels can be terrifying and exhilarating – sometimes both at the same time.

The following year, our employers were fully prepared for our heavily-researched claim (“Building on the Success”) and thought that they’d organised a fool proof “We can’t afford it” argument. If only they hadn’t played fast and loose with an insurance company they’d set up… but that’s a different tale.

(Naturally, given that this all happened many years ago, reported speech is an approximation of what was actually said, although it reflects the spirit of the discussions.)

Thursday, 11 February 2016

That chocolate, walnut, cherry and brandy cake

(Written 11/02/2016)

I made a cake for a party. So many people asked for the recipe, I thought I'd put it here, then they might read a few of the other posts on this site. This is not a healthy cake, it's basically an attempt to solidify brandy.


8 oz finely crushed digestive biscuits (it's OK to leave a few small lumps, they add texture)
8 oz plain chocolate (use the good stuff)
4 oz butter
1 oz brown sugar
2 oz chopped walnuts
2 oz chopped glace cherries (although I leave them whole)
Brandy to taste. Slosh quite a bit in, you want to know it's there. I used a quarter of a bottle for the party cake, but that's my taste.


1) Line an 8" dish with foil.
2) Melt butter and chocolate slowly in a basin over hot water. Stir occasionally until well blended.
3) Remove from heat and stir in sugar, walnuts and cherries.
4) Gradually add the biscuit crumb, blending thoroughly with the chocolate mixture.
5) Slosh in the brandy. Taste frequently to ensure quality, freshness, absorption rate and taste.
6) Pour into the lined dish.
7) Chill in fridge for at least two hours. The cake, not you, fool...


Saturday, 16 January 2016

"Stonehenge Apocalypse"

(Written 3/8/2010 - a plot summary of a film so dreadful that it was on mainstream TV less than twelve months after it was made.)

Archaeologists, only, like, they're the bad kind of archaeologists, the ones who want to control the Earth, decipher an ancient prophecy and dig up this really important artefact in Maine. It turns out to be an alien terra-forming device, planted in prehistoric times, and digging it up turns it on! Immediately, the stones of Stonehenge swivel round and round, attract lightning from, like, nowhere, and lots of tourists who are wandering round the stones are killed. Somewhere else, an ancient pyramid spews out lava, killing thousands.

A team from the American Life-Saving Emergency Force try to work out the significance of this, but they are baffled until a discredited archaeological vulcanologist who studies ancient texts in his spare time warns them that pyramids are alien caps on volcanoes. They laugh at him, because he wears jeans and a leather jacket, and he rides a large motorcycle. Yes, they all laugh at him, even the top babe whose white coat you could bounce a 50p piece off, and who turns out to be the Harvard Professor of Life-Saving Emergencies.

Meanwhile, Stonehenge spins again, and another pyramid in another continent blasts lava. The American Life-Saving Emergency Force sends a team of disposable scientists to Stonehenge, where they set up video conferencing facilities so that their deaths by spinning-stone lightning can be recorded.

Enter the bonkers conspiracy theory nut, who has a regular radio programme on the Internet. He finds out about spinning Stonehenge, and flies to Wiltshire, where he climbs the mountains that surround Stonehenge. Descending to the plain below, he is pursued by the US Army, which is now protecting the area. As he runs to the stones, they begin to spin, and he and the soldiers are killed by lightning. Somewhere else, a pyramid does a kind of Transformers thing, lava, thousands dead.

A US General attached to the American Life-Saving Emergency Force gets very angry, and urges everyone not to listen to the handsome discredited archaeological vulcanologist, who has now worked out that all the transforming pyramid volcanoes are connected to Stonehenge by ley lines. The General blames Stonehenge for the volcanic delinquency, and flies the Atlantic to the mountains of Wiltshire to issue the command "Nuke Stonehenge!" because... I dunno, maybe phones and email were down or something.

The handsome archeological vulcanologist and his now subservient mini-skirted Harvard Professor of Life-Saving Emergencies race after him, because they have now translated some more text that explains how the terra-forming can be turned off. Landing quite close to a new pyramid that has emerged near Stonehenge, they have a big fight with the bad archaeologist's leader, who wishes to welcome in a new world order, mainly based on pumice. They win, there's lava, and a scream. Handsome and mini-skirt turn an ancient handle, and the stones of the Henge go back to their proper, God-given places.

They call the General, call off the strike! Too late, the nuke has already been dropped... OMG, I was on the edge of my seat by this time... but thankfully, at the General's command, the nuclear missile falls apart as it descends, leaving only two lumps of plutonium-241 to impact harmlessly on Stonehenge.

Pals, it's a hoot. If you enjoyed "Giant Octopus Vs Mega-Shark" - and who wouldn't - "Stonehenge Apocalypse" is the film for you.

Negotiating as it should be (dirty tricks and all)

(Written 15/01/2016)

Having told this tale the other weekend at a couple of friends', it was suggested that it deserved a wider audience. So here, folks, is how to run employer/employee relations *properly*, and I apologise for the length..

Two decades ago, when I was Union Branch Secretary and Lead Negotiator within a regional utilities company, I found too much of my time being taken up with grievances, or disciplinary and dismissal cases that should have been sorted out at a more local level by one of the Branch representatives. I mean, what was the point of my driving down to (for example) Yeovil just to say to some middle manager "You can't do that, it amounts to constructive dismissal. Call Personnel at Head Office and get them to check 'Snodgrass vs Bargain Foods 1967' then advise you", followed by driving back to Havant ten minutes later with the employee's thanks ringing in my ears. It was a waste of my time and my employer's money (because I always used a company car from the car pool to drive to such hearings. And they paid me for the time spent).

It became clear that our local representatives were either scared of, or useless at negotiation, so I came up with A Plan. I wrote a two-day course (which took nearly two months) that addressed some of the more common failures of negotiation, then went to see the Personnel Director, Steve. Now, unless you've been the negotiator for a staff side, one thing that you won't know is that you have to have some kind of relationship with your opposite number, just for those times when one or other of you needs to say "Look, we've screwed up here. What's the easiest way of putting things right?" behind closed doors. Yes, there will be times when you shout at each other over the negotiating table in front of your respective teams, but if you can't go and have a cup of tea together afterwards, there's going to be a lot more problems than there should be.

So I went to see Steve, to ask him for two favours. The first was a day off for my reps, because I intended to run the course over a Friday and Saturday at a hotel in the area, kicking off with dinner at 19:30 on the Thursday night. "I'll have to approve the course first", said Steve. I took him through it and I was pleased that he chuckled from time to time and also said "Well, if it teaches some of your more berzerk reps that..." or, "Well done, they often get that bit wrong..." and other favourable comments. An hour later, I had my days off secured.

"So what's the other favour?" said Steve. I explained that after dinner on the Thursday, I wanted a keynote speaker to launch the course with a twenty minute talk followed by a discussion of no more than an hour. "And I want you to be the keynote speaker, Steve", I ended. "Good Lord!" was the response, followed by "Actually, I can see that. Management approval of doing negotiating better because it helps both sides... makes sense. Hmm, well what would you want me to talk about?"

"The title of your speech is 'The View From The Other Side Of The Table'. Say what you like, Steve. Tell them what they look like." A big grin came over his face - and he agreed. He went further, and said that he'd be very keen to have a report on how the course went, as he thought it was not only good, but lots of fun for our trainers. "Why not stay for the course, then, Steve? As our guest, of course. You could be invaluable in briefing the management side..." (Negotiating skills courses always divide delegates into management and employee sides, the same lessons are learned by each side, you just have to make sure that each delegate has the chance to work on both sides at different times.)

Steve loved the idea, yes, he'd be keen to help out, observe, and add to the feedback after each negotiation - there were to be three. On that note, we parted.

One of the tricks to negotiation is to never let the other side know that you're negotiating. I'd just got the participation of the Personnel Director of a multi-million pound company, IPM-qualified, earning a six-figure salary... for the cost of a couple of days in a hotel. Which was my third planned favour, the one I hadn't asked for in case his consultancy fees made the costs unreachable. I think Steve twigged when he arrived for the course and found that there were only two trainers, him and me...

Steve ate the first dinner in his room, so that my reps didn't see him. All they knew was that there was a "keynote speaker" who their Branch Secretary knew. Was it the Chair of the National Electricity Committee? Was it someone from the National Executive? Was it a member of the Labour Shadow Cabinet? Was it Rodney Bickerstaffe, the then General Secretary of UNISON? Was it Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Arthur Scargill? (Younger friends, click on the links, I can't be bothered to explain.) I heard all those theories over dinner, and felt astonished that my reps thought I had that much pull.

When they were all gathered in a small function room after dinner, I stood at the top table, welcomed them to the course, hoped that they'd all enjoy the following two days and take some lessons away from it, then introduced the keynote speaker. "He's someone who has always impressed me with his command of negotiation, someone who I look forward to learning from while you do. Colleagues, here to speak on 'The View From The Other Side Of The Table' - Steve Xxxxxxxxxx, our Personnel Director." And as Steve walked in, I heard one or two worried "Kin'Ell!"s.

Steve gave it to them with both barrels. How they used bluster instead of reason. How they ignored the simply obvious win while looking for clever arguments. How they confused employment law for "What everybody knows". How they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. How they tried to defend obvious lost causes, rather than seeking the best worst result. How they felt they had to take on every single case, even the hopelessly lost ones - and worst of all, how they tried to argue the case of members who'd engaged in criminal activity, rather than seeking a lesser penalty than the one management were proposing. (You can't defend law-breaking, but you might get a dismissal downgraded to a final written warning with a good argument.)

There was a lively discussion after, that continued into the bar, where Steve refused to be drawn on Company policy or future plans and established himself as just another trainer.

The following morning (Friday), the delegates had a ten-minute chat from me about the principles of negotiation and how they'd already done some when buying a used car, persuading one of their children to undertake an unwelcome task, that sort of thing, and then it was off to prepare for their first role-play, having been split into management and staff sides. Each side was given a brief - "The Case Of The Missing Tea Break", and the twits thought that the two briefs were the same.

They were not.

Both sides were told that management wanted to abolish the ten-minute tea breaks in the morning and the afternoon, and planned to replace buying tea in the canteen with vending machines (that dates it!). The staff side were given a few arguments to consider, arguments that the management side didn't have. Steve advised the management side - but only if they asked the right questions. I did the same for the staff side.

Each side was allowed an hour to discuss the best approach, then there was an hour for the negotiation, followed by a shared debrief. The staff side did exactly what I hoped they would - they put together a very good case for unlimited visits to the vending machines and free vending. They nailed management with their argument, and got nearly everything they wanted, unlimited visits and free vends except on Mondays (because the vending machines were rented and had to be paid for).

My first question at the debrief was to the staff side. "So who won?" "We did!" was the cheerful reply, as the management side laughed openly. Next question - "Why do you think that?" "We got our drinks free except on Mondays, instead of paying for them in the canteen, and we can have as many as we want, whenever we want!"

Management side? "We won. No question about it." At which, a grinning Steve said "They did. Tell 'em, Mark."

(Have you seen it yet? Stop here if you don't think that management won and have a think, because they did. Hands down.)

I went over to a flip-chart and began to ask Steve some questions. "How many people work for the company?" "Their average pay?" "So that's how much an hour?" "So two ten minute tea breaks per person costs £X.... now, let's multiply that by the number of employees... and we get - a quarter of a million pounds a year." (I still remember the final figure, it took ages to juggle the tea break time to give that answer when writing the course. Told you it took two months!)

At which, I turned to the staff side. "There was a quarter of a million pounds on the table!. And you sold it for free coffee? What's more... YOU agreed to pay for the vending machines! Still think you won? You didn't, you lost and did everything management wanted you to. Now, swop briefs." Which is where the staff side found that the management brief had lots of financial information, while theirs had lots of "hearts and minds" arguments. See, that's what happens when different sides apply different attitudes to a problem.

First lesson learned. Cost everything, and look for the hidden agenda. Employers want to increase profits, so make sure the staff get their proper share. What's really on the table?

After lunch, they changed sides and got stuck into negotiation number two, "The Case Of The Sick Musician". Sickness disciplinaries were a pain in the proverbial for all the reps. If a member was off sick with doctors certificates, no problem... unless they'd been off for three weeks with "anxiety" or something you couldn't see, in which case the employers sent the sick person to the Company Doctor for assessment. The main problem was the member who had fifteen days a year off sick, a day at a time, mainly on Mondays and Fridays, apart from the odd Wednesday when they needed a day off for "'flu".

The case concerned a fairly obnoxious member who played in a local band and made it clear that he only worked for the company to subsidise his career in the music business, and that he would "soon be out of this crappy place". While signed off sick for "back pain", a member of management had seen him playing keyboards with his band in a local pub, and confirmed with the pub manager that the band were being paid for the gig. The member had duly been dismissed, but had appealed. It's the day of the appeal.

I role-played the musician for the staff side, if they needed to interview him, and provided whatever other information they asked for... but only if they asked the right questions.

The management side (according to Steve) needed little time to decide that it was an open and shut case, and that there was no defence the staff side could produce that would change the penalty. As for the staff side, well, they had a little more information... You can stop here and think about what would be the killer argument if you want

The key here was to recognise the plank that management's argument stood on, and knock it away. With a little hinting, the staff side asked the right question, although it took nearly three quarters of an hour for them to get there. Management's argument was that the member was likely to further injure his back, resulting in more sickness absence. They'd arrived at that decision despite having no medical qualification, of course. So the solution is...? Come on, staff side, this isn't difficult! "Um - ask his doctor?" Yes! Assuming the member will sign this letter to the doctor that I have prepared, asking for confirmation of his diagnosis, the treatment proposed and whether the member had been cleared to play with his band, of course. And in return for asking the question, they got a letter from the doctor (my friend Dr Chris wrote it for me) explaining that the member had suffered a prolapsed IV disc, that the treatment involved painkillers, daily hospital appointments for traction and massage, and moderate exercise. In particular, the doctor confirmed that he'd advised the member that playing keyboards fell into the category of moderate exercise, as long as the member didn't try to lift heavy equipment.

The staff side creamed management at the negotiation. One of my more berzer kreps (who was on the management side) tried to downgrade the dismissal to a final written warning, and I was so pleased that the staff side pounced on that straight away - "You're imposing a penalty for being certified sick and doing your best to follow medical advice?" Our member walked away without a penalty.

Lesson two learned. Work out the other side's position. Why do they want to do this? If the other side seem likely to balance an overpowering argument on a single plank, do everything you can to destroy it. If you do, they'll be flustered and confused, and brothers and sisters, that's exactly* where you want them to be when you press your demands home.

End of Friday, delegates looking at Steve and me, muttering "Those sneaky bastards", dinner, then a pint or two - and can they stop talking about negotiation? They can't, they're asking Steve about employment law, what actually happens when Mark puts the annual pay and conditions claim in (and, baby, that's a whole 'nother story!), asking me about certain classic cases where I got a surprising decision, and encouraging the "arguments" that Steve and I engaged in when doing an unscripted (but planned) negotiating role-play entitled "Who will pay for a round of drinks for the delegates?" I lost, when Steve threatened to tell the story of me using my boss' PC and confusing a: and c: when using the <del> DOS command. (Younger folks, it meant that I wiped his hard disc and three month's work.) The findings of the disciplinary that followed were in my personnel record - that Steve had read carefully before joining the course, just in case. (I got a verbal warning only, because my boss ought to have backed his work up to floppy disc - yes, it was that long ago.)

Free lesson learned. Always have some outside, potentially embarrassing info on your opponent, because you never know when it'll come in handy. That sneaky bastard.

Saturday, and we're on to the last case study, "The Case Of The Icy Office". This one had taken nearly three weeks to write, both to put all the traps in place but also to ensure a specific attitude before negotiation began. (I'll come to that later.)

The case concerned a group of workers who opened post. When they arrived for work, the heating had broken down, just like it often did. The temperature was 50F, and one outraged member knew his rights. "The law says that if the temperature is under 55F, we can go home!" Which they did, despite being told by their supervisor that they wouldn't get paid for the day. Later that day, the Maintenance Dept found the recurring fault, which should have been spotted the first time the problem occurred. Local management accepted that the problem was partly their fault, so they've only docked the absent workers half a day's pay. The workers have lodged a grievance, because they feel that it's entirely management's problem, and they shouldn't be penalised because the Maintenance Dept "can't do their bloody jobs!" (There was a lot more detail to the brief, like problems with the supervisor's attitude which management have been aware of for some time and planned to deal with "um, when the opportunity arose" and other stuff put in mainly to muddy the water, but I've probably bored you senseless by now.) The grievance will be heard in an hour's time.

When the staff side read their brief, with a few notes for consideration attached, they realised they had a few problems. The walkout was a form of industrial action. If the staff side condoned it, it would become official industrial action - which needs an independent ballot of all staff affected that has to be communicated to the employers before it can take place. None of the striking workers had contacted a
staff rep before taking the action. Yes, the members were stupid, but then, members often are. So - do you sell your members down the river, or expose the trade union to potentially massive fines?

Things got decidedly more dodgy when they tested the point of law the strikers had rested their entire case on. (See, they'd learned something.) I'd brought a copy of the latest version of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act with me, so that they could check exactly what temperature the office had to be before work could start, knowing that someone would be certain the temperature needed to be 60F, another would say that it had to be 62F, while others would offer different figures. See, if there's one point of employment law that everyone knows, it's that you don't have to work in a cold office.

Imagine their concern when they couldn't find any such clause in the Act. Seriously, it wasn't mentioned. The clause they thought they knew was actually in the Factories Act - and it said that workers had to give management an hour to get the temperature up to the minimum required, and they couldn't go home, they just didn't have to work. The required temperature was 16C, or 61F. It didn't apply to offices, though, and the workers had struck over a point of law that they weren't covered by.

If there was gloom among the staff side, it was equaled in the side-room where management were meeting. Their brief made it clear that by paying half a day's wages, local management had effectively *fined* the staff for taking the action. You don't have to pay striking workers, but you can't impose a penalty on them,either. (Berzerk rep - "So take the half day pay back, end of problem." No, you idiot, they've already taken industrial action, that could bring the entire workforce out. Hang on, could that be the staff side's plan? Hmmm, is that the hidden agenda? We have to tread very carefully, Mark's a sneaky bastard.) Local management had acted wrongly and stupidly, and given them a big problem, but should they sell local management down the river or back up their stupid decisions? Steve made it clear that they couldn't do anything but condone the action of local management. Anything else would destroy management's credibility for months, maybe years to come.

Before the role-play, Steve and I had a quick catch-up to check the state of each side. Their expectations were exactly the same and could be summed up as "We're screwed. They're going to walk all over us." Just the attitude I'd planned!

The resulting negotiation was a draw. The workers didn't get their half day's pay back, but they were offered sufficient overtime (doing the work they'd walked out on) over the coming month to more than repay the "fine". Neither side sold anyone down the river, then they left, to beat a) local members and b) local managers into a bloody pulp, depending on which side they'd been on.

Final lesson learned - always prosecute your case with the best arguments you can put forward, no matter how unlikely you think a win is. Be prepared to go down with all guns firing if you think you have a case worth prosecuting - but remember what Steve said on Thursday night about unwinnable cases. If you have to, accept the least worst outcome, but always argue for the best one.

And now back to the real world.... I explained that the final negotiation was an accurate representation of what it's like for most cases. Steve, having invoked the "What's said on the course stays on the course" clause, agreed. I further explained that they'd all been set up with very low expectations and that the side that was prepared to propose a confident argument that accepted the failings of the other side would invariably win. After all, it's not about winning or losing, it's about getting the work done to the best advantage of the staff they represented. You can't grind management's faces in the dirt, mainly because you'll need a favour one day and you're going to have to negotiate with your management all over again next time. There has to be a continuing relationship, and if you want them to respect you, sometimes you have to respect their position.

Steve added his agreement - "Mark sometimes comes to me with one of his usual hare-brained schemes, but I know his heart's in the right place and he's just trying to get a better deal for his members. So I have to explain how business works and send him away with nothing. If he won't be sent away and still argues back, I have to recognise that there's a real problem that we have to fix, if we can. Sometimes we can't." The git. My response was to explain that Steve sometimes floated really daft initiatives, but that I had a lot of sympathy for his difficult position, as he was the mouthpiece for our bonkers Managing Director, who often came up with plans that were, frankly, nuts. So sometimes I have to say "No!" rather firmly.

To sum up, then - both sides are often on shifting sands, and it's the negotiator who can summon the most effective argument who will win. So look for the hidden agenda, the plank that the argument is balanced on, always check the law, go on an industrial law course for goodness' sake, and never be put off because you think the other side holds all the cards.

Steve added his own valediction, which was basically "Don't be a clown. Make us respect you." All smiles, applause, lots of "Thanks, Mark!" and "Thanks, Steve!", then lunch and home. All in all, a very effective course, and in the months that would follow, my workload decreased as our reps did their own negotiation.

Except that this isn't the end of the tale. A week later, I had a call from the MD's secretary - Jim (the MD) wanted to see me as soon as I could arrange it, and 2 p.m. that day would be good for him. Ohhh, bad news, had one of my reps been fiddling the books? Was I to be sacked after my part in the Great Tea Trolley Disaster of 1979 had been discovered? Had Steve told Jim that I'd called him "nuts"? With a
heavy heart, I booked a pool car for the trip to Head Office.

I was shown into the MD's office to find Steve with him. Top manager with top representative of Personnel? Bollocks, it's the sack, but why?

Jim invoked the "Say one word of this outside this office and you'll be reading meters in Weymouth until you retire" clause, then explained that he'd asked Steve to write a report on our negotiating course. He'd also seen the course material, which had impressed him. Then the bombshell - "We've got a problem with our middle management. One that Steve and his staff have to spend far too much time on." Steve added - "We'd like you to be the keynote speaker at the start of the course. Your title is "The View From The Other Side Of The Table". You'll be welcome to stay and observe, of course... unless you'd like to join our trainers briefing the managers playing the staff side..."

Yes, they pinched my course. Yes, they got me for no more than the price of a couple of nights in a better hotel. And yes, when I walked in to deliver my speech, I heard people muttering "Oh, shit, it's HIM!" Yes, there were only two trainers, Steve and me. And we had just as much fun, although Steve lost the "Who's going to buy a round for everyone" mock negotiation when he realised that I'd "turned" his secretary and had her read his personnel file - and she'd told me about the horse and the balloon.

See, that's how you do negotiating right at the very top. You cultivate a relationship over years that allows you to call the Personnel Director by his first name, you work really quite hard for a couple of months to write something that's better than his own organisation can produce, and if it all goes as planned, you end up sharing responsibility for ensuring that negotiation is as effective as possible, and that problems are nipped in the bud before they can become major issues.

That, by the way, was the primary favour I wanted from Steve when I went to him with my course - shared responsibility for negotiating company-wide decisions. Had I put that "hare-brained scheme" in front of him that day, though, I daresay I would have been told to put an egg in my sock and beat it.

I got it, nevertheless.

(Note: reported speech above is not exactly what was said, but is the gist from my memory.)