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Power play

Ellis Croft
Negotiation Power Blog [Converted]
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During most of our recent courses, many participants have raised the issue of leverage, or power, in their negotiations in relation to the challenges they lean into on a day-to-day basis. It’s a topic that’s well worth reviewing and on a regular basis – there’s plenty to think about.

On the most simplistic level, power can be determined by factors over which most of us have little or no control over: size, turnover, resources, dependency, authority and more. On another level, power is nuanced – politicians may be small in number (compared to many of the interests with whom they may negotiate) but their ability to project authority through legislation more than compensates for that.

Sometimes, however, power can be very much within our control. We see this with increasing frequency in the UK as the inevitable election which must be held by Janaury 2025 draws ever closer. Powerful politicians suddenly realise that their dependency on parliamentary power is contingent on our votes – for a brief period, the electorate collectively have a higher leverage over the fortunes of the nation than is normally the case.

Similarly there are some fascinating arguments taking place in the USA over unionisation within the automotive sector. The United Auto Workers Union (UAW) have been canvassing the workforce at VW’s Tennessee plant for a long time to join them – twice previously, this invite has been rejected by the workforce. This month however the anticipation is that the next vote may well see workers vote in favour of unionising. The arguments for? Job security, higher wages, better conditions and benefits. Counter balancing what would appear to be attractive arguments for those on the shop floor are concerns that unionisation would increase costs, throttle investment and scare off automotive manufacturers who enjoy the benefits of US employment laws as they stand. In what has long been a traditionally Republican voting state, these arguments have held sway. So what’s changed? One view being espoused is that the pandemic has changed the dynamic as workers view the precedent set by employers laying off workers during Covid as representing a new and existential threat to their employment. Another is that UAW strike action won workers significant concessions at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis in 2023, credible evidence that collective action can deliver concrete results. As a negotiator, the response to this of VW, Mercedes and Nissan fascinates me – they increased workers salaries, apparently unconditionally. On the one hand this action could be seen to rob the UAW of a big chunk of their power – the ability to offer the prospect of a better livelihood. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as a signal from the manufacturers that the workers could have enjoyed better pay all along – had they been unionised. Of course this may have the unintended consequence of conferring more power to the UAW, rather than less. And most interesting of all is that we won’t know until the VW workers vote whether the pay increase added to the power of the company or the UAW – because right now, the power balance is actually sits with the workforce. So while power can often be seen as beyond the reach of the individual, this is not always so – and equally importantly, power is dynamic. It moves, and grows and diminishes – whether through cycles, external factors or the actions of individuals.

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