About fifty years ago, following my stint as the plumbers shop steward whilst working for Hackney Council. I was elected as the officers Convenor Steward under the auspices of the then huge union NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers).
To cut a long story short, the NALGO Executive decided to finance myself and two other representatives to spend a week in their country retreat at “Largs” in Scotland in order to learn some of the key techniques used in negotiations. That week was a grand jolly away for me and the other two but the train journey from St Pancras, London was long and tedious to say the least. However, the old hotel was no longer the palace it had been, but clean enough, with a number of large lecture rooms. There were several workshops planned for the week so the hotel was nearly at its capacity.
The Monday morning saw the beginning of a very intensive week. Our three tutors each had extensive experience at negotiating at the highest levels of Local Authorities. Each teacher took one facet of an actual dispute Luckily there were sixteen of us on that weeks course so each day (on a turn and turn about basis) eight of us played the part of the bosses whilst the other eight were the union representatives. The three teachers took the part of “ACAS” (Advisory Conciliation & Arbitration Service) The week was very cleverly constructed with both sides ‘drip fed’ more and more information as and when they asked the relevant questions.
The oldest of the tutors was a very charismatic guy called John who was well into his seventies, with a full white beard as well as a thick head of white hair, he looked very distinguished. As the week developed towards an inevitable impasse where both sides were losing ground to one degree or another and tempers were getting frayed, the union side (my side in that session) wanted to storm out of the meeting. However, John took us into an anti-chamber and I will never forget his advice. “Keep your knees under the negotiating table – never walk out as it is a sure sign of weakness, that will only get worse if you accompany your walkout with the threat to take industrial action”. So we went back into the meeting and after agreeing to disagree both sides found small issues on which they could compromise, and before long the substantive dispute was resolved.
Over the years, when I was the NALGO Branch Secretary and later as a Local Authority Councillor, John’s advice has served me well, so as Churchill said “jaw jaw not war war”.