Mitchell’s Musings 6-27-16: Lessons from Labor Negotiations for Brexit

25 Jun 2016 3:02 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-27-16: Lessons from Labor Negotiations for Brexit

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Last week’s musing, written before the “Brexit” vote, noted that while Brexit was a Big Deal for Britain (and not a particularly wise choice), it was not likely to be a big deal for U.S. economic performance. I noted that the really big choice for countries entering the EU or within the EU was being part of the euro-zone (or not), because of the euro’s compromising effect on national economic sovereignty. But Britain never joined the euro-zone. So why have a Brexit?

Undoubtedly, now that the pro-Brexit vote has occurred, you’ll find economic forecasters who will predict – down ­to the tenth of a percentage point – what the effect of Brexit-related “uncertainty” will be on the American GDP growth rate. (If the problem created by Brexit is uncertainty, how can you be certain?) But let’s put aside the U.S. effect and look in this musing at the negotiations that must now ensue between Britain and the EU. And let’s note at the outset that the vote in favor of Brexit was 52% to 48%, hardly an overwhelming endorsement. Basically, the British electorate was split down the middle. Some random event or perhaps a better campaign by the anti-Brexit group could have reversed the totals.

I saw a headline on the Boston Globe website the day after the vote – “Britain exits the EU, and the world shudders” – which was totally misleading.[1] Britain hasn’t already left the EU and couldn’t do so under the most accelerated possible timetable for a couple of years. Rather, there has been a referendum to start negotiations on the terms of a divorce. So let’s focus on the word “negotiations.” Is there anything that can be said about these Brexit negotiations from the study of labor relations? I think there is.

Defined Goals

In labor negotiations, while the parties can’t be sure of the outcome, they usually start with some defined goals of what they would like to achieve. In the Brexit case, the current prime minister of Britain – who opposed Brexit but promised to have a vote on it – is stepping down for obvious reasons. Who his successor will be in the Conservative Party is as yet unknown. The Party remains split between pro- and anti-Brexit forces. So the immediate leadership of the country is unknown. The opposition Labour Party largely opposed Brexit and there is pressure on its current leader to step down. Given its state of political flux, Britain doesn’t have defined goals for the eventual negotiations with the EU. And it can’t have defined goals until its political process determines who will lead the country.

What about the other side? Does the EU have defined goals? Hasty and ill-considered statements from various EU officials made immediately after the vote indicated that they want the process to be over with quickly. But it takes two to tango and the British aren’t ready to dance. The outgoing prime minister would be foolish to rush into talks and start making deals which his successor might void. And why would the EU want to start with a lame duck prime minister and then be confronted with someone else who might insist on starting over?

Anyway, the day before the election, the EU’s goal was that there should be no Brexit. Suddenly, after the vote, the goal became to divorce “fast.” But “fast” is not a goal; terms and conditions are goals. If you view the negotiations as being about divorce, there are complicated areas to be considered such as the status of EU and British nationals now residing in the two areas, trade relations such as tariffs, etc. But what if the EU goal were to remain not having a divorce, i.e., no Brexit despite the vote? We’ll come back to that possibility later.

Defined Chief Negotiators

In traditional labor negotiations, someone on each side ultimately has to call the shots. Even though there are negotiating teams, someone must ultimately be in charge who can make and accept offers. Usually, in the private sector, the management side is inherently the more disciplined party since the union is a representation organization. But in public sector labor relations – with elected officials and designated professional negotiators on the management side – unity on that side is not always present.

As noted, Britain’s political process will eventually produce a new leader. But that process has just started to operate. And the initial response of the EU was statements being made by various officials without any clear lines of authority. In short, there are no defined chief negotiators in place on either side of the negotiations. The parties aren’t ready.

Never Say Never (and Never Say Must) Unless You’re Sure

Labor negotiations are what economists call repeat games. Contracts are agreed upon, signed, ratified, and then expire on a specified date and have to be re-negotiated. If, in today’s negotiation, you say you will never accept something and then accept it, you lose credibility in future negotiations. If you say there is something you absolutely must have, and then accept a deal without it, again you lose future credibility. When you say never or must in the future, why should the other side believe you?

Presumably, in the Brexit case, there will be only one EU negotiation with Britain. But the EU is said to be concerned that other countries might want whatever deal Britain gets at some point in the future. So saying never to something Britain wants (or saying the EU must have some provision from Britain) and then conceding could undermine EU credibility with another country in the future.

Does the EU really know at this point what its “nevers” and “musts” are, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a defined negotiating leader? It doesn’t seem to have its nevers and musts, and – if that’s the case – the EU isn’t yet ready for negotiations. And neither is Britain.

Silence is Golden

There is a false idea that the solution to all ills - whenever official institutions are involved - is “transparency.” But transparency is not consistent with meaningful negotiations. That’s why negotiations are held in private in the labor relations realm. If they are not kept private, the negotiators are forced to play to various outside constituents and cannot be frank with each other.

Sometimes, external news media statements are used to put pressure on the other side. But such use of outside pressure involves having a strategy. Right now, the EU – due to its lack of a defined leader – features officials mouthing off without any strategy. In short, the EU is not ready to negotiate until it has a strategy, has a designated leader, and can maintain discipline (no mouthing off) within its officialdom.

Deadlines Can Be Helpful But Only If They Are Real

In a labor negotiation, there typically is a date at which a contract expires that serves as a real deadline, real in the sense that there are consequences of not reaching a settlement by that time. Generally, contracts have no-strike clauses. So once the expiration date is past, the union is free to strike (although it doesn’t have to do so). After contract expiration, management is free to change terms and conditions once it has bargained to an “impasse” (although it doesn’t have to do so). For these reasons, labor agreements are often reached shortly before the de facto deadline of the expiration date.

Of course, parties to any negotiation can always set some arbitrary deadline for themselves. But if nothing real happens when that deadline passes, there will be no pressure to reach a deal at that point. There is talk of a two-year deadline for a Brexit divorce. But would anything happen if the deadline passes and a deal hasn’t been reached? There has never been a divorce of an EU country before. So in practice, it’s unlikely anything would happen if the deadline came and went without a deal. That fact is yet another reason for not rushing into negotiations. Starting early doesn’t prevent finishing late.

Third Parties Can Help

Although we have pointed out that “nevers” and “musts” can be dangerous, parties to negotiation sometimes stumble into taking positions that are hard to change. As labor negotiations illustrate, points of inflexibility are when mediation can be helpful. A mediator can help the parties reformat their positions so that they seem to be – or can be said to be - within the parameters set by their previous nevers and musts. Mediators, in short, can often induce flexibility when positions have hardened.

One way to settle disputes if the parties become stuck and mediation fails is arbitration. In the labor relations case, there are well known individuals who can play the role of neutral third parties. Surely, in the international field, there are prominent former diplomats and officials who could play such a role for the EU and Britain. (Barack Obama will be around after January 2017 – but the EU might regard him as too Anglophile.)

Negotiations Might End in No Brexit

We hinted at the possibility that the EU’s former goal, no Brexit, could be revived. Why shouldn’t no Brexit still be the EU’s goal? In fact, there is already a petition drive in Britain for holding another referendum. However, just repeating the previous referendum seems unlikely and might alienate voters. But it certainly sometimes occurs in labor negotiations that a deal is reach, is rejected by workers in a close vote, and then is cosmetically redesigned and re-voted (and accepted). As noted, 52% vs. 48% was not an overwhelming margin of victory for Brexit. As problems for Britain begin to arise – calls for Scottish independence, Northern Ireland issues, volatile stock markets, etc. – there could be a change in public opinion. A small shift could turn the decision around.

As noted, an identical repeat referendum with the same choice as before might be a hard sell. But what if there were to be a second referendum after a divorce deal was tentatively concluded, whenever that turns out to be? There could be a referendum on the terms of divorce. It wouldn’t technically be a repeat of the Brexit vote. It would instead be a vote to accept the yet-to-be-negotiated divorce terms, yes or no? And if voters rejected the terms of the negotiated divorce, they would automatically be voting for no divorce, i.e., no Brexit. That’s the kind of reformatting that occurs in creative labor relations and which could be applied in the Britain-EU case.

Bottom line: Everyone should take a deep breath and stay calm. Learn from labor negotiations. Goals need to be set. Leadership needs to be arranged. Mouthing off by unauthorized officials needs to be discouraged. The parties should avoid inflexible nevers and musts. Use of neutral third parties should be considered. And the possibility of no Brexit should remain on the table. There will be negotiations, but what’s the rush?



Employment Policy Research Network (A member-driven project of the Labor and Employment Relations Association)

121 Labor and Employment Relations Bldg.


121 LER Building

504 East Armory Ave.

Champaign, IL 61820


The EPRN began with generous grants from the Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations


Powered by Wild Apricot. Try our all-in-one platform for easy membership management