Mitchell’s Musings 4-24-17: Lessons from Collective Bargaining for the North Korean Dispute

19 Apr 2017 4:29 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 4-24-17: Lessons from Collective Bargaining for the North Korean Dispute

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Mike Pence's warning to North Korea: 'The sword stands ready''[1]

Donald Trump was elected president in part due to a promise to negotiate better deals in areas such as international trade and foreign policy. For many years, less so now than in the past, union-management negotiations were very much in the public spotlight and served as a model of the bargaining process. The U.S. is currently engaged in de facto bargaining with North Korea. Is there anything that can be learned from collective bargaining that carries over into the North Korean situation?

Union-management negotiations are what economists call “repeat games.” That is, unlike a buyer and a seller haggling over the terms of a one-time sale of a used car, the parties to a labor negotiation meet repeatedly over the years as one contract expires and a new one has to be negotiated. In the context of a repeat game, what either party does in a particular negotiation will have ramifications for what happens in subsequent contract negotiations. An added complication in the labor negotiation case is that the same union or the same employer may be negotiating other contracts with different parties at the same time. So what a party does in one situation may simultaneously influence the other negotiations.

One thing is clear from collective bargaining. In any negotiation, there are potential gains that can be obtained and costs that can be inflicted. Credibility is thus very important. Neither side can be 100% sure about what the other party is prepared to do in terms of making concessions or inflicting pain. But both sides can look for clues from past negotiations. What you say in any one negotiation and what you ultimately do is going to matter in other negotiations.

For example, if you threatened to do something in the past, or if you promised something, did you follow through? If you accepted a deal in the past containing terms that you previously had said you would never accept, that action suggests that any such a statement in the future has to be received with skepticism. If you offered something that you had previously said would never be on offer, such a statement in the future also has to be received skeptically. If you were a soft touch in the past, and now want to change to Mr. Tough-Guy, that shift could be costly. Your opposite number may assume you are bluffing when you aren’t, and you both may stumble into a conflict as a result.

These considerations bring us to the current impasse, if that is what it is, with North Korea and its periodic testing of atomic bombs and missiles. A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times read:

Pence warns North Korea not to 'test' Trump, says the 'era of strategic patience is over''[2]

How seriously is North Korea likely to take such a warning? Presumably, the powers-that-be there (which may come down mainly to one man) are aware of President Trump’s recent flip-flops on such matters as Chinese currency manipulation, the utility of NATO, the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, etc. Even on domestic matters, the record of presidential backing down isn’t likely to suggest to the North Koreans that “testing” Trump would lead to bad consequences.

There was going to be a repeal and replacement of Obamacare, for example, but it didn’t happen after the president couldn’t get a deal within his own party. He seems unable to obtain any party consensus on tax policy, let alone force a tax deal. If you think the North Koreans – because of their isolation – are unaware of these U.S. domestic matters, think again. Recall the Sony computer hacking in which the North Koreans were apparently up to date on who was who in Hollywood and on what could embarrass who in Hollywood.

What about recent U.S.-related military events in areas other than North Korea? What lessons might the North Koreans draw from those events? There was a U.S. missile attack on an airfield in Syria said to have been a target because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The missile attack appeared to be aimed at differentiating the Trump administration from the Obama administration and the latter’s infamous unenforced “red line” statement about the use of poison gas. And there was the “Mother of All Bombs” dropped on ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan.

But both U.S. attacks were delivered in ways in which there could be no shooting back from the enemy. So the attacks, while dramatic when shown on TV, posed little risk to Americans. As numerous pundits have pointed out, any U.S. attack on North Korea would, in contrast, involve considerable risks, particularly to civilians and U.S. military personnel in Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea.

When you look to the labor relations analogy, the missing ingredient in the U.S. position at this time is credibility. Flip flops in other spheres – foreign and domestic - and painless military attacks suggest the opposite of what is intended. They suggest that the president will back off when there might be real costs. If he doesn’t intend to back off this time, that switch may not be evident to the North Koreans.

One interpretation of Trump’s fluidity with regard to domestic and foreign issues is that perhaps it could be an inadvertent test of President Nixon’s so-called “Madman Theory.”[3] That theory suggested that if the president acted unpredictably, uncertainty over what he might do would deter adversaries. In the Nixon era, the adversaries were North Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

There is some deterrent effect to uncertainty. Indeed, although I have no knowledge about where the Madman concept originated within the Nixon administration, it, too, has a labor relations analogy. There was a wave of strikes in the Nixon period. As a result, the president at one point toyed with idea of pushing legislation to allow dealing with major labor disputes through something called the “choice of procedures” approach. Nixon’s secretary of labor, George P. Shultz, viewed choice of procedures positively, based on its use under a Massachusetts state law.[4] Choice of procedures can be seen as a cousin of the Madman idea.

Under the existing federal Taft-Hartley Act (covering most of the private sector) and the Railway Labor Act (railroads and airlines), the president can invoke a temporary injunction (cooling off period) to halt national emergency disputes for durations designated in the two laws. There was an argument that the parties to labor disputes that were likely to be considered as national emergencies would simply build the injunction delay into their strategic planning. However, if the president had several alternatives available (a choice of procedures rather than just the fixed-duration injunction), the resulting uncertainty would make such strategizing more difficult. The parties – not knowing for sure what the president would do - might be induced to settle their dispute on their own.

In a national emergency labor dispute, however, the president is acting as a third party. So the uncertainty in such disputes is about his intervention in someone else’s conflict. In the North Korean situation, however, the U.S. is an active party to the dispute. If anything, China is the third party in the Korean case. And there is danger in the fact that so far, President Trump has conveyed an image of flip flopping on various issues and of unwillingness to risk pain militarily.

If his intent in North Korea is to deviate from his past record and now be tough and unyielding, there is – as noted earlier - an increased risk of stumbling into a confrontation. What reason do the North Koreans have for believing that this time it’s different? That’s why in labor disputes, a good negotiator avoids saying “never” when the true position is “maybe.”

The bottom line here is that if American policy toward North Korea has really shifted to a hard line, it will require something more than just saying so to convince the North Koreans of that fact. In a labor dispute, if the parties have misguided views of each other’s true positions and responses, an unnecessary strike can result. The result is lost wages and profits and some public inconvenience. In the North Korean case, however, we are talking about the potential for mass casualties and even use of nuclear weapons as the consequences of blundering.

Let’s hope we don’t blunder into some catastrophe this time. Suppose at this point, the president – despite the no-more-mister-nice-guy rhetoric – ultimately lets China defuse the immediate conflict with some face-saving solution. At that point, the North Koreans will have learned that tough rhetoric from this president should not be taken literally; that the rhetoric is for domestic political consumption only. Should the president at some future date actually mean it when he issues a tough ultimatum, the declaration will likely lack credibility. And the next conflict will have a still higher risk of blundering into disaster. Too bad there is no one like George Shultz in the White House today who can inform the president of the escalating risks involved.





[4] George P. Shultz, “The Massachusetts Choice of Procedures Approach to Emergency Disputes,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, April 1957, pp. 359-374. 

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