Mediator, Arbiter, Equalizer, Healer

Jaw jaw is better than war war.
— Winston Churchill

I spent the spring and summer of 1980 working as a mediator at a strike-torn coal mine in eastern Kentucky. Angry miners had been striking almost weekly in violation of their union contract, and management had fired a third of the workforce in retaliation. A local judge had jailed another third for a night for disobeying his order not to strike. The mine was receiving bomb threats and miners were carrying guns to work. The national coal miners’ union expressed fears that the situation could end up triggering a nationwide coal strike.

Every morning for weeks, I donned miner’s clothes, a lamp, and a safety mask and descended into the coal mine to listen to the miners’ grievances. They led a hard life, spending their working hours in pitch-black tunnels a mile under the earth. The ceilings were so low in most places that miners had to walk bent halfway over. They had no lights other than headlamps and no bathroom facilities. The dust hung so thick in the air that my face and saliva had turned black by the time I emerged at the end of the day.

When I asked why they were striking, the miners did not, however, complain about their working conditions, but focused instead on management’s actions, the layoffs and jailings.

“What could management do?” I inquired.

“Fire the mine foreman!” replied the local union president.

“The troublemaker is the union president!” management countered. “If we can get rid of him and a couple of other bad apples, the problem will go away.”

The basic pattern of conflict was finger-pointing, personal animosity, and tit-for-tat retaliation. The principal problem seemed to reside less in the nature of individual grievances than in the way differences were handled.

Interests, Rights, Power — and Relationship

Upon investigation’, my colleagues Stephen Goldberg, Jeanne Brett, and I came to realize that a miner who felt he had been unjustly treated had but three ways to respond: try to talk it out with his foreman, file a contractual grievance with the union, or turn his water bottle upside down and walk out on strike with his fellow miners. The first option led nowhere, the miners felt; the foremen never did anything to fix the problem. The second, filing a grievance, converted the problem into incomprehensible legal jargon, took forever, and rarely produced any satisfaction. The third, walking out, was the easiest and most direct; even if it produced no change, it felt good to strike back at injustice and make the company pay. Hence the constant walkouts followed by the retaliatory layoffs, lawsuits, and jailings.

My colleagues and I set to work, together with the union and management, to change the way disputes were handled. We sought to restore the miners’ option of talking out their problems.

Since employees had no specified person in management to whom they could bring their grievances, we recommended that management hire a full-time labor relations director. Similarly, since many of the strikes had begun on the midnight work shift when union officials were generally asleep, we asked the union to post an official on that shift to assist employees who had problems. To help both sides learn how to handle the inevitable tensions, I led a training workshop in joint problem-solving methods.

For three months, moreover, I worked at the mine as an informal mediator, listening to miners’ grievances, bringing both sides together, and helping them find solutions, Surprised at their initial successes in grievance resolution, miners and managers began to develop confidence in their own ability to resolve their problems through negotiation. The result of all these changes: Both sides started to talk out even their most difficult issues and the strikes ceased.

As my colleagues and I reflected on this experience afterward, we came to realize that the three approaches at the miners’ disposal for resolving disputes were, in fact, universal. Either one tries to reconcile the conflicting interests of each side through talking, or one takes the issue to a third party who determines the rights of each side, or one decides on the basis of power—by striking, for instance. Even though the interests approach is generally preferable, the rights and power approaches have an important role to play, if only as backups when talking alone does not succeed.

A fourth approach exists, parallel to the other three. It concerns the relationship between the parties. At the mine, for example, the accumulated distrust and hostility between miners and managers proved a huge obstacle to collaborative problem-solving. The fourth approach is to heal the strained relationship.

The third side can make a critical contribution to each of the four resolution approaches. As Mediators, we can help reconcile the parties’ interests. As Arbiters, we can determine rights. As Equalizers, we can help balance the power between the parties. And as Healers, we can help repair injured relationships.

Conflicting interestsThe Mediator
Disputed rightsThe Arbiter
Unequal powerThe Equalizer
Injured relationshipsThe Healer