The Bargaining Table

We tend to speak of negotiation as taking place at the bargaining table just as we assume that professional baseball and football are played in a stadium. But negotiations can take place anywhere at any time.

In many negotiations, the bargaining table is simply where the parties exchange proposals and information with major decisions made in executive sessions away from the table. Detractors would often call them secret session to imply that there was something sinister about them.

Negotiations and mediations are usually described as taking place at the bargaining table. Actually, they occur wherever the parties are located. The telephone can play an important part in the process. Even the absence of meetings can contribute to the outcome.

The formal sessions of the peace talks on Vietnam were conducted at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, France around a square table, the product of an initial disagreement over the table’s shape. But the real negotiations were being conducted in secret away from the table. The proof that the negotiations at the Hotel Majestic were simply a facade was evident from the fact that they were open to the press. The delegates alternated each week in reading a statement prepared in advance with knowledge that, shortly after it was read, it would be disseminated by the media throughout the world. The purpose of both sides was to reassure their respective relevant audiences that they were seriously trying to end the war.

In the automobile industry, it is not unusual, in talks on renewal of collective bargaining agreements, for the parties to exchange press releases at the onset of their negotiations. They are designed mainly to influence the rank and file, the most relevant audience for both sides, and also to impress stockholders and consumers. But at an appropriate point in the talks, both sides will impose a news blackout on themselves. That is a sure sign that they are getting down to business and often a sign that they are near an agreement.

In an address to Congress on January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson spelled out 14 points for our post-war peace negotiations. The first and most noteworthy was: Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at. But the reality is that open covenants secretly arrived at is the regular practice in most major negotiations. It can be venal if they are not made public, but not if they are released in timely fashion.