ORG Blog

The Twinkie War: An Intractable Conflict

A few years ago we began to incorporate into our practice an increasingly researched concept commonly referred to as “Intractable Conflict.” In the simplest terms , an Intractable Conflict is one in which the parties have become so incensed with one another that they choose to get even rather than to seek resolution to their disagreement, even though it will very likely result in their own demise.

There have been numerous cases of Intractable Conflicts globally: tribal wars that have led to the annihilation of whole populations and religious differences that have spawned centuries-old conflicts. All are complex examples of disagreements that age into feuds whose long history of each party violating the other eventually becomes more impactful than the original dispute.

We see similar behaviors and outcomes in the workplace. Most experts in the field would agree that the eventual demise of Eastern Airlines was a classic industrial case of an Intractable Conflict between the company and the International Association of Machinists.

Eastern with its roots dating back to the mid-1920s had a history of colorful leaders. World War II ace, Eddie Rickenbacker took over the helm in 1935 and led them to 26 profitable years. In the late 1970’s, however, the pressure of deregulation and high dollar commitments to aircraft purchases led the company to go repeatedly to its unions for concessionary agreements. Those discussions were dominated by adversarial rhetoric and behavior on both sides of the table. After years of difficulty between Eastern and its organized labor groups, the company declared bankruptcy. In less than a year Eastern was no more.

As more details about the dispute between Hostess and the Bakers Union emerge, one can’t help but wonder if this might not become the next textbook example. 18,000 internal jobs are at stake and when suppliers and jobs in the communities surrounding the plants are taken into consideration, very likely many times that number will be lost. The Teamsters managed to reach a concessionary agreement with the corporation to save their members’ jobs, but the Bakers union did not.

Judge Robert Drain, the bankruptcy judge overseeing the case, said on the record that he didn’t understand why the union had chosen not to fight the concessions in court. To the degree that this situation parallels the course of an Intractable Conflict, the likely answer is that the whole fight had unfortunately gone too far. In the case of an Intractable Conflict, publicly embarrassing company leadership in the press and on the picket line would be much more satisfying than to civilly wage war in a staid courtroom environment despite the risk of job loss.

Intractable Conflict is a complex problem that requires skill and resources to overcome. The lesson here is simple. Before conflict gains such a chokehold, all the parties need to agree to step back, get third party assistance and try both reconciliation and collaboration before the level of disagreement escalates beyond repair. While getting even may feel great temporarily, in the long run a collaborative answer will yield a far more satisfying result.

Please join the conversation. We’d be interested in hearing other examples of labor-management issues that have elevated to the point of intractable conflict. What was the situation, and what was the outcome?

Robert Hughes

More

For a definition of Intractable Conflict and a list of its primary characteristics, see “Intractable Conflict: Description” and “Intractable Conflict: Characteristics” both by David Nicoll, Ph.D. in the What We are Reading section under the News and Views tab of our website www.orginc.com.

Topics: Labor Management Collaboration Conflict Resolution