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Babylon 5 and the Power of Collective Bargaining

Brad Howland

Brad Howland

The television show Babylon 5 is a helpful resource for musicians going into contract negotiations.

I was involved in two successful contract negotiations between orchestra musicians and their management. In the first negotiation, the committee managed to improve the situation of the part-time musicians of the orchestra, from being paid on a per-service basis to being paid a weekly salary. In the second negotiation, the committee managed a three-year agreement with reasonable pay increases each year, despite the fact that the orchestra was facing a deficit crunch, and management brought in a hard-nosed negotiator from the newspaper industry to oppose us.

I don't take credit for these successes – they were very much a collaborative effort from the hard-working musicians on the committees. In fact, I had no experience in contract negotiations before these. I prepared for the negotiations by studying negotiation techniques, watching all five seasons of the television show Babylon 5, and writing down the show's ideas as they were revealed. I then did my best to bring those ideas into the negotiating process, I believe with good results.

The Ideas of Babylon 5

I invite you to read the following Babylon 5 concepts, and to contemplate how they might assist you in your own negotiations:

…and four things that you must determine prior to your negotiating sessions, in order to succeed:

A Few Actual Tips on Negotiations

You must first go through a democratic process to find out what the musicians really want, as it may not be the same thing as what you think they want. The best way to do this is by distributing a questionnaire and tabulating the results.

Once you know what they want, you have to find ways to convince the other side of the validity of your position. It will help a lot to know the orchestra's financial statements like the palm of your hand. You should have those statements bookmarked at the places you need to support your arguments. If you don't have the expertise to understand the statements, get help.

You must appeal to independent, outside standards to bolster your cause. You do this by examining hard data, such as pay scales and working conditions of similar-sized orchestras, the inflation rate in your region, historical housing prices, or other economic indicators. Have that data documented and available to call upon if needed.

Your negotiating committee must present a unified front. It is generally best to elect a spokesperson to do most of the talking during meetings. It's not that nobody else can have any input, but most of it should come from one person. If it is necessary to debate an issue your committee should "caucus," meaning it takes a recess and holds the discussion out of earshot of the other side.

Don't be afraid to leave the table if you aren't getting anywhere. It can be to your advantage to fail to reach an agreement, rather than sign a bad agreement, especially if management is asking for concessions you don't like.

If you need to buy time before making an important decision, you can always fall back on the old standby: "We don't feel we have a mandate to agree to that. We will have to consult the musicians of the orchestra."

Episode 12: By Any Means Necessary

Getting back to Babylon 5, in Season One there is an episode dealing with contract negotiations that I feel should be required viewing for any union official: "By Any Means Necessary," one of my favorites. The dockworkers on the space station go on strike in protest over the dangerous working conditions. Their cause is just, but the Earth authorities send in a tough negotiator who declares their strike to be illegal and orders them back to work.

What I like about this episode is that the union doesn't succumb to a touchy-feely, "New Agey" approach to negotiations. They too have a hard-nosed negotiator, who isn't afraid, and never backs down. The confrontation goes to the brink of violence before the station's captain manages to mediate a solution both sides can live with. It's interesting that he accomplishes this by reinterpreting orders from Earth to shift more station resources over to the dockworkers. In other words, he solved the crisis by appealing to an independent, outside authority, even though he didn't use that authority in the way it was intended to be used.

Related Websites

Collected Quotations from Babylon 5

The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5

Babylon 5 Encyclopedia

Official Babylon 5 Homepage

About Brad

Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

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