The front cover of July’s issue of Public Servant magazine shows Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, asking us the reader the question; why strike now? He is of course referring to the potential upcoming strikes regarding public sector pensions and the government’s plans for reform. He describes how “current pensions are unsustainable” and as a result “public sector workers are anxious about pension reform”, somewhat understating the dark skies and ominous rumblings of a wholly public sector picket line.

Maude describes how less than 10% of the civil service workforce and 33% of teachers voted in favour of strike action, and sees this limited support as an optimistic, and hopefully not premature, indication that no strike will occur whilst settlement discussions are on-going. He does however make the following assertion, that; “if there are not changes to pensions, then there will have to be job cuts; we simply cannot afford the current pension scheme.”

Whilst Maude maintains that some aspects of the public sector pensions will remain fixed, he is clear that unless there are changes to the current system jobs will have to be cut. Throughout the article he appeals to the humanity of the reader, citing fairness and the redressing of the balance between public sector staff pension payments and other taxpayers payments as a supporting argument. Whilst he may indeed believe that pension reform, in his and the eyes of other senior ministers, is not just our only option, but is also the ‘fair’ thing to do, it could be argued that he is somewhat ‘missing the nail’ by this approach.

A value such as fairness is definable, similarly to aesthetics, through the eye of the proverbial beholder. If someone was told that their holiday home was being repossessed to shelter a family who needed it more, one could say that was the fair thing to do as they needed the house, however if you were to ask the original owner they would be hard pressed to praise the spirit of social equality and ‘fairness’.

The working world may have to accept that their pensions will not go as far or as long as they were once promised, and clearly there is no simple answer of how to tell someone that what once was theirs to have, is now, in part, no longer so.

As a mediator, one of the crucial tasks is to investigate the parties’ understanding of conceptual and yet highly impactful aspects in dispute such as ‘fairness’. It is all too easy to see the world through one’s own unique view, recognising what is fair and unfair according to that individuals judgement. However by being impartial, the mediator removes their own judgement from the situation and works towards finding the common ground between the parties, the crossover in the Venn diagram of fairness. By accessing this and helping parties explore whatever sits in this area of communal ‘fairness’, rather than prescribing a judgement of what is fair, the mediator can facilitate parties to build a shared understanding of what ‘fairness’ is in this context.

The role of the mediator is one of power with rather than ‘power over’. All too often we see those in power telling others how it is, however when someone in power asks others “how is it?” it starts to open up the issue and unpack what areas are important to those involved. Rather than each side justifying their actions, you would hope that an exploration process has taken place to find out what, ‘wiggle room’ remains to expand on other issues. This is potentially as important, if not more personally meaningful than fulfilling the concept of ‘fairness’.

Francis Maude clearly has his own needs in this situation, as do those public sector workers, and as such a mediator could certainly help. The array of needs that are driving the dispute come burdened with emotional responses and triggers which can inhibit the restorative capacity of listening and empathising with ones counterpart position. To hear someone define a situation you see as ostensibly unfair, as being fair and just, it should be expected that there would be some emotional reaction arising. In this capacity alone having a mediator in the dispute, acting as a coach in this respect and explorer in the former, would greatly increase the likelihood of settlement in this dispute.

Talks are on-going and no doubt they have looked at these issues addressed above and have considered how to approach the negotiations so as to best meet the needs of those parties involved whilst achieving what needs to happen.

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by Daniel Kershen

Daniel Kershen is the Foundation Project Co-ordinator for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).