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A day in the life of a Federal mediator for the BART strike

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) passengers walk off of a train on October 15, 2013 in San Francisco, California. BART management and union leaders with Bay the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and the SEIU Local 1021 continue to negotiate a new contract for workers as the threat of a transit strike continues to loom over the heads of Bay Area commuters. BART, the nation's fifth-largest commuter rail system, carries nearly 400,000 passengers every weekday.

Workers for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, went back on strike today. Talks broke down -- despite the involvement of the director Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service which helps resolve labor disputes.

Believe it or not, labor negotiations have high drama.

Back in 2009, the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association feuded over salary and other workplace rules for three years. The government had to order them to negotiate. Eugene Freedman, deputy General Counsel with the Air Traffic Controller’s Association, was there during negotiation. “There was essentially no relationship between the parties,” he says.

Until, Freedman says, George Cohen saved the day.

Cohen is director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. "When George intervened, he basically had to create the relationship in the room," Freedman says. "I would say he’s about as close to a miracle worker as there is,” Thanks to Cohen’s superhuman skills, Freedman says the two parties are still working collaboratively today. 

David Lipsky, a professor of dispute resolution at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations,  says mediators like Cohen have to instill trust in bothsides of a dispute. “He’s an excellent people person, one of the best I know in fact,” Lipsky says. 

But, according to Lipsky, mediators also have to be experts in the field where the fight is taking place. "You have to know a lot of complicated subjects, [like] pension plans, retirement plans, healthcare plans."

Mediators also have to be able to understand what people mean even if they don’t say it, according to Michael Dickstein, a principal mediator with Dickstein Dispute Resolution in California.  "One side is saying 'We won’t do it, we don’t want to do it, you haven’t said anything convincing at all about doing it', he says. "Then they said the words 'I’m hamstrung.'” That last word, says Dickstein, is the clue. 

"I’m hamstrung says, 'Oh, I’d actually like to help you but you’re just not giving me what I need,'" he says. 

Finally, Dickstein says, mediators need to possess enormous patience -- kind of like the riders on the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit System

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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