Union and University leaders agreed Wednesday to use a new approach suggested by a hired consultant when they begin negotiations for union contracts next week.

Leaders also announced that they would continue to work with consultant John Stepp of the Washington, D.C., firm Restructuring Associates Inc. as Yale and its unions begin bargaining on contracts for locals 34 and 35, which represent nearly 4,000 of Yale’s clerical, technical, service, dining hall and maintenance workers. The previous contract expired last month, but leaders decided to extend the old contract’s terms through at least March 1.

The decision to adopt interest-based bargaining came after negotiating team members from both sides completed two days of training in the process, and represents another step in what leaders have called an effort to improve an oft-acrimonious labor-management relationship.

Stepp described the interest-based approach as similar to a marriage in which both parties discuss their needs and find solutions together, rather than making demands for specific things.

With a labor-management relationship that was counted among the worst in the nation and included seven strikes in the last 10 negotiation periods, union and University leaders decided last fall to delay the negotiation process and instead agreed to hire Stepp to help suggest ways to mend the relationship. After meetings with 120 representatives from both parties, Stepp wrote a report that criticized both sides of what he called a “dysfunctional” labor-management relationship.

In his report, Stepp suggested leaders work on reforming the negotiation process, and Local 35 President Bob Proto said the decision to adopt interest-based bargaining was an easy one after the training sessions.

“We definitely recognize the need for change,” Proto said. “There’s some good healthy problem solving that’s done in the same room, and where people are able to lay out their interests and work together for solutions, and I think that that’s a healthy way to build a stronger, more trusting relationship.”

Proto said he expected to discuss the mechanics of bargaining when negotiating sessions begin next Wednesday.

Yale President Richard Levin was out of town and unavailable for comment Wednesday.

University leaders have said they do not expect economic issues to be major sources of contention this year. But conflict could arise over the recognition of two groups trying to form unions. Leaders of local 34 and 35 have said they want graduate students and workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital to receive union recognition as part of the upcoming negotiations, but University officials have said they will not recognize either group or discuss any such action as part of the negotiations.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”20036″ ]