September 1, 2006 Volume 107 Number 17

The Peacemaker

Connie Weimer helps union and management get to the deal

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

From her office on the 16th floor of Portland’s Federal Building, Connie Weimer, 58, looks out over the Willamette River.

“I’m trying to make collective bargaining work for working people, and for the employers,” Weimer says. “I believe it’s better than the alternative.”

Weimer is a commissioner of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a tiny stand-alone federal agency with a mission of promoting labor-management peace. FMCS has fewer than 200 mediators nationwide; Weimer and Commissioners Jim Bailey and Darrell Clark are responsible for all of Oregon, Idaho and Southwest Washington.

FMCS’ core activity is collective bargaining mediation — a voluntary process in which mediators serve as a neutral third party to broker a settlement. FMCS also maintains a list of private arbitrators for union and management to call on when they can’t agree how to resolve a grievance. And FMCS helps set up local, regional and national labor-management committees that try to prevent serious disagreements from breaking out in the first place.

“Mostly you never hear about us,” Weimer says. FMCS is invisible until bargaining breaks down, and even then it works behind the scenes. Credit, when agreement is reached, goes to the warring parties who buried the hatchet. Mediators avoid the limelight.

Yet FMCS knows about every union negotiation in the country. Unions are required to notify the agency before beginning any contract bargaining. Then, list in hand, FMCS commissioners like Weimer follow up with a phone call to the leaders to ask how each negotiation is going.

Among negotiators from both sides, Weimer has earned high marks as a knowledgeable and impartial deal-maker. “At the end of the day, she brings home a deal,” says John Etten, director of bargaining for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. “She’s little but she’s tough,” says Alice Dale, president of Service Employees Local 49. “She has a positive energy and she never gives up,” says management attorney Bob Lee of Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson.

Today Weimer is a professional “neutral,” but she got her start in the house of labor.

Born Constance Marie Weimer on a farm near Bejou, Minnesota, she began early to think about politics: Her family belonged to the Farmers Union and supported Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, which merged with the Democrats in 1944. At college she studied speech, political science and music, graduating from the University of North Dakota in 1970. She taught high school and coached speech and debate, counseling students to come prepared to argue either side of a proposition. It was a skill Weimer would later use herself at FMCS.

When Minnesota passed a law allowing government employees to unionize, she got active in the teachers union.

It was a course change for Weimer. “I went to bargaining sessions and found it fascinating and stimulating,” she recalled.

She decided to get a master’s degree in industrial relations at the University of Minnesota. Degree in hand, she was hired by the American Nurses Association to represent nurses, first in Minnesota, then in Kansas City. She moved to Oregon in 1978 to help an ANA-affiliate, the Oregon Nurses Association, which was competing with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, AFL-CIO, to see who would represent Kaiser Permanente clinic nurses. Nurses at Bess Kaiser Hospital went with ONA; nurses at Sunnyside joined OFNHP.

Five years and four nursing strikes later, Weimer was homesick, and returned to Minneapolis for a stint with the teachers union. Then she found out FMCS was hiring.

The agency tended to hire experienced labor negotiators. Experienced labor negotiators tended to be men. Affirmative action, she believes, helped her win the job — she was one of eight employees hired by FMCS, out of 160 applicants.

She began at the FMCS July 16, 1984, and learned the ropes by shadowing other mediators. Portland was her first permanent assignment.

Over the years, she’s developed a method.

“I see myself as a settlement advocate,” Weimer adds. “I’m trying to avert an economic meltdown.”

She does that, she says, by helping the parties assess the consequences of disagreeing.

Part of that is working on adversaries’ internal dynamics.

“Unions are a political organization,” Weimer says. In other words, union leaders may feel they need to show results in order to keep their jobs, and that perception can be an unspoken constraint in bargaining.

Weimer cautions union negotiators about shaping the expectations of the members.

“To the extent that expectations are raised beyond reality, sometimes the mediator will talk with the bargaining team about what they can realistically get. Their colleagues are going to have to make a decision: ‘Are they willing to sacrifice to get something more?’ “

So rather than committing to one specific outcome, she encourages both sides to think in terms of progress.

She tries to understand the interests underlying the proposals of both sides, and looks for other ways of satisfying those interests. She tosses out ideas, asks “what if” questions.

“I want to know that I haven’t left the room without exploring with the parties every alternative,” Weimer says. “Did I turn over every stone in search of ideas?”

She knows the terms of other labor agreements, so if one party is stuck on winning something unusual, she asks them to explain why they think that’s reasonable.

Often, what works is separating the parties. Then Weimer is the one to deliver proposals and counterproposals.

“She plays, as she calls it, the Kissinger-style, back-and-forth, shuttle diplomacy part,” says the UFCW’s Etten.

“Sometimes if somebody from the other team delivered [a proposal], it would just feel like salt in an open wound,” Weimer says.

“If there’s a great power imbalance, I try to get a conversation started [with the more powerful side] about the long-term consequences of using all the power at their disposal, compared to what’s basically needed and why.”

“On the other side, I tell whoever is lacking the power that we need to talk about that. We put that in context of what’s going on in the industry, in this community, or even nationwide, so that that bargaining team realizes that it isn’t their inadequacy, but that their job is to try to figure out a strategy. Many times that strategy is for short-term survival, to live to fight another day.”

Management is most often the more powerful party in negotiations, Weimer acknowledges.

And what if management doesn’t want a deal?

Weimer thinks before she responds: “Sometimes settlement isn’t both sides’ desired outcome. Maybe they’ve made an offer that they know can’t be swallowed. The union looks at this and they say to me, ‘You know we can’t do this.’ And I say, ‘Well then, there’s a message there, isn’t there?’ And the question always is ‘What are the consequences the union can create? And if there aren’t any …”

Weimer trails off.

It’s a central dilemma of her profession, but one that FMCS doesn’t concern itself with officially.

Strikes are down 90 percent since 1970. In 2004, there were just 273, with less than three dozen involving more than 1,000 workers. Is that a brilliant success for FMCS, or a measure of the declining effectiveness of the strike, labor’s ultimate weapon?

Undoubtedly, it’s the latter. Unlike workers in some other countries, American workers don’t have the right to keep their jobs if they go on strike; employers can permanently replace them. That legal flaw became a management custom after President Ronald Reagan set the example in a 1981 strike by air traffic controllers employed by the federal government. Permanent replacement of strikers weakened union bargaining power, and with it unions’ ability to win justice in the workplace.

But FMCS’ mission is peace, not justice. Congress doesn’t want interstate commerce interrupted by strikes and lockouts, says the founding legislation.

FMCS was created by the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (better known as the Taft-Hartley Act, after the names of its Congressional sponsors).

Taft-Hartley was an anti-union counterattack. Twelve years after the National Labor Relations Act made it the official policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining, Taft-Hartley was passed to rein in the explosive growth of unions. After a Republican landslide in the 1946 election, an anti-union business lobby had enough support in Congress to pass Taft-Hartley over the veto of President Harry Truman.

Though founded in ferment, today the agency keeps away from controversy. Unlike the Department of Labor, its budget doesn’t fluctuate nor do its work methods change depending on which party is in power in Congress or the White House.

“I think both parties see the value of the work we do,” Weimer says.

That neutrality holds even in the passionately partisan Bush Administration. FMCS’ current director, Arthur Rosenfeld, was formerly a kind of “labor law attorney general” as general counsel of National Labor Relations Board.

But anti-union groups like the National Right-to-Work Foundation felt Rosenfeld was not combative enough with unions, and opposed his reappointment. In January, Bush reassigned him to head the FMCS.

Weimer isn’t aware of any shift since then; like other commissioners, she’s autonomous, a professional who sets her own hours and answers first to her own expectations.

The job has its rewards. FMCS commissioners are classed GS 13 in the federal government employee hierarchy, with a salary that starts at $72,035. Unlike agents of the National Labor Relations Board, FMCS commissioners have no union of their own. But Weimer has no complaints about the management.

What about the spiritual reward of turning discord into harmony, and seeing labor and management walk away friends? Doesn’t really happen, Weimer says.

“It does happen that both sides leave the table happy with a settlement,” Weimer says, “but more often a good deal means both sides are unhappy, because they each gave up something.”

If Weimer ever wearies of the back-and-forth, she doesn’t let on. In off-hours, she stays recharged by cultivating her garden at home in Northeast Portland, and playing keyboard in the Portland Accordion Ensemble.

And the job itself keeps her going.

“Many people would say we’re absolutely crazy to walk into a situation where people are arguing every day,” Weimer says.

“But I can tell you that all of us love this work.”

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