“Mediator appears to side with teachers union in contract impasse”
This recent headline from a Florida newspaper caught my eye and got me thinking – “Why is the mediator taking sides? S/he should withdraw from the process and have a neutral mediator appointed immediately!”
The “mediator” is Scott Milinski, a member of the US National Mediation Board (NMB); however, he was not mediating the dispute between the United Teachers of Monroe union (UTM) and the Monroe County School District (MCSD). Rather, he was presiding over a public “impasse hearing”.
“An impasse occurs when after engaging in good faith negotiation, mediation, factfinding with a mediator and post fact-finding negotiations, the parties are unable to reach an agreement. Various laws and contractual agreements govern impasse procedures to be followed in negotiations, such as labor-management talks.” Source
Mr Milinski was engaged in a fact-finding role and, as Milinski told the parties “Nothing I say is binding,” adding that he was “here to make a recommendation.” Following the hearing, Milinski has 15 calendar (business) days to give both parties his recommended decision. The two sides will then have 20 calendar days to discuss the recommendation and decide whether or not to accept it.
By contrast, mediation assists parties to identify issues, generate ideas, consider alternatives, imagine possible outcomes, and make decisions about the future. The mediator is a neutral third party who guides and supports the parties, managing the process not the outcome. She facilitates communication between the parties and assists them to come up with and evaluate their options. The mediator must maintain her impartiality, should never appear to take one side over another, and does not make recommendations about the dispute.
So, while Mr Milinski is an experienced and accomplished arbitrator*, the impasse hearing bears more resemblance to a conciliation process than a mediation process. You can read more about the differences between mediation, conciliation and arbitration over on my FAQ page
*Correction: Scott is a member of the NMB in the capacity of an arbitrator not mediator.