Speaking Truth to Power: Negotiations
At some point or another you’re going to have to negotiate with management. It’s important to know what you’re doing in these circumstances because more often than not you’re not going to have much experience and management will use theirs to mess you around and try to undermine the campaign. Here’s 10 top tips from previous negotiations by Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action, UCL Cut the Rent and Sussex Cut the Rent:
1. Control the narrative from the get-go: make sure your side appears ready to negotiate from the beginning, clarify and reclarify your position as a ‘last resort’ as much as needed so they and anyone else see you as serious and unwavering, enlist support from relevant entities (have them present as observers if it helps) and send out comprehensive press releases or public statements from your perspective after any major developments. You can even be petty and line by line correct any public statements they put out
2. Have best case scenarios and an absolute bottom line ready and in your head and aim for the absolute best case. Before every meeting you need to know which demands you will not concede on, and from that the goal should be to try to win everything over those red lines. Don’t let management know what they are though! You should know what you’re asking like the back of your hand, this will always be your benchmark to management. If you do end up conceding, every concession should give you further leverage to try and push demands. Recognise that you’re not going to win all of your demands, or even any of them in the first meeting with management. Be ready to book another meeting if time runs out and you didn’t do your arguments justice yet and only budge down to second best case scenario if they’re absolutely refusing after repeated attempts.
3. Address the power imbalance and minimise it as much as possible: set clear and easy to fulfil the conditions for meeting such as having all members of a decision-making body present or having a detailed first response to demands in writing. Set up an agenda you’re 100% happy with and just present it to them with no scope for feedback. Any squeaks from their side would look like they’re deliberately not cooperating with negotiating and don’t care about reaching a conclusion. Scout out your chairs if one is needed and observers (Student Union officers are a good and legitimate choice) too - a strict ‘observers can’t talk’ rule can give you an upper hand as they would inevitably want to include their own. Set ground rules for the meeting too if that helps.
4. Know what leverage you have or could potentially gain during negotiations. There’s no point having your red lines somewhere completely unrealistic if the only thing you have is a petition. Knowing how strong your campaign is in terms of effect to university finances and how much your demands relate to those damages is crucial.
5. NO COPS: under all circumstances reject mediation or having lawyers present, even better if you feign naivety and don’t acknowledge the possibility of there being any legal ramifications of rent striking in any form of communication. Be prepared to walk out of a meeting if they surprise you with a lawyer or mediator in the room.
6. Stick to a script: save any background information or tirade against landlords/marketisation etc. for email correspondence or a manifesto and ensure the meeting is strictly about practically meeting demands, divide a point of research or specific demand between people and come in having an answer for any rebuttal they have. Show you know what you’re talking about by name dropping all the red tape around why they might resist a demand and provide solutions.
7. At any sticky points where they’re refusing to budge on a demand reiterate that you have the upper hand by refusing to pay rent and the sheer numbers there are of you compared to them and supporters/public attention you have. If possible for your campaign lay the threat of escalation on the table.
8. Spill the tea! if even vaguely relevant to your demand, find a skeleton in the institution’s closet to throw them off-guard such as poor finances, a low student retention or recent scandal. In particular, try to get as much information on university finances. Know how much money the opposing side is playing with. Freedom of Information requests are your friend so use them to find the amount of profits they’re making in terms of rent, how much rent has increased over the years, use it to study your enemy as much as possible. At some universities this information will be available so do ask the SU if they can find any relevant information on this subject. Also, VERY IMPORTANT, don’t talk about what you don’t know, management will have far more information so try to shape the narrative around what you do. In addition, use this information to point out how much better it would be for everyone’s sake, especially the institution’s own reputation if they just met your demands. Play up how much faith you have in them to do better and do whatever bootlicky tactics you need to serve it up on a plate real nice if that’s what’s getting a response.
9. Management will try to offer a bursary instead of a rent cut. This is good, but is a plaster on the problem of skyrocketing rents rather than a long-term solution. To avoid this you need to work out when management set the rents for the following year (at UCL this is February, but this can usually be found out through your SU).
10. Be acutely aware of any noncommittal language being used and outright ask for solid actions to be taken. Ask for a date of completion for any action points you give them and timeline any long term actions.
With all these tips you will hopefully be able to put off an offensive in negotiations that make management fear you and overestimate your abilities. But the number one thing is be confident in what you’re saying. If you’ve gotten this far you can definitely take on some slimy bureaucrat.