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Alumnus uses mediation to solve disputes at home and abroad

December 6, 2016 | Alumni

It was June 2011, and Michael Franczak ‘95 found himself in Oman, an Arab country situated at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Just a few months prior that February, thousands of protesters had flooded the country’s streets—inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the Middle East— where they demanded more job opportunities and an end to widespread government corruption. Franczak was tasked with designing a workplace mediator program to help.

Following a series of wildcat strikes among workers in the country’s oilfields, Franczak—a commissioner for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), an independent agency of the U.S. Government—spent ten days in Oman at the bequest of the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau. Oman has one of the largest oil reserves in the Middle East, which drives the country’s economy. The United States and Oman have also been in a free trade agreement together since 2009.

“There were ministers in the Omani government who ended up having to—they called them helicopter agreements—they actually rode helicopters and went from oil field to oil field where the strikes were occurring of workers,” Franczak said. “They essentially developed agreements by hopping from one place to another on helicopters.”

Franczak has spent the last 15 years based in in FMCS’ Cleveland, Ohio’s field office, where he mediates labor and employment disputes throughout the private, public, and Federal work sectors. He also provides collective bargaining technique, conflict resolution, and workplace problem-solving training. By his own estimates, he has mediated more than 450 collective bargaining agreements and more than 400 employment disputes throughout his career.

FMCS also has more than a decade of international experience mediating workplace conflict, in countries throughout Africa, China, Burma, and Vietnam. A year after his trip to Oman, Franczak traveled to Morocco to train 70 of the country’s labor, management, and government mediators. Ultimately, more than 400 Moroccan labor inspectors have been trained in conflict resolution as part of FMCS’ five-year dispute mediation model and tripartite training program.

“Our approach as American trainers is to make the experience interactive and fun because we recognize that regardless of culture, whether it be in the United States or anywhere else in the world, people learn by doing as opposed to having people speak at them,” Franczak said. “They really appreciated that opportunity in Morocco.”

Initially, most of Franczak’s coursework at Moritz revolved around litigation, civil procedure and the courts. Joining The Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution (JDR) was the first time he was able to recognize a different path for his degree, one that brought parties together to resolve conflict and yet still maintain control over their final outcome.

“I’ve always wanted to be a Buckeye,” he said. “Deep down inside, I’ve always loved Ohio State. Once I found out that I was accepted to Ohio State, I jumped on it. I didn’t want to be a hired gun, I wanted a way of solving conflict. ADR really was really a foundational experience to understanding a different path to resolving conflict, so I’m very appreciative for having that introductory experience.”

After he graduated, Franczak worked for the Ohio House of Representative’s Education Commission as legal counsel.  In 1997, he joined the Ohio School Boards Association as deputy director of field services. He worked with a number of federal mediators in Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland along the way, especially when he negotiated contracts on behalf of school boards and handled collective bargaining agreements. Franczak eventually joined FMCS in September 2011.

“I always thought government service was an area would be of interest to me. I even thought at some point I might run for office,” he said. “As a federal agency, FMCS is sort of a combination of government service and working as a dispute mediator. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Last November, Franczak received FMCS’ Director Award, the culmination of his 15 years of work in collective bargaining mediation, labor management, alternative bargaining and mentorship. The award is given to two of the agency’s top mediators each year.

Just prior to receiving his award, Franczak developed a pre-negotiations training program for Ford Manufacturing and the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) Union. A different alternative bargaining model he developed called Critical Issues Bargaining, a hybrid between traditional and interest-based bargaining, has since been used with more than 60 organizations and unions to achieve new collective bargaining agreements.

Mediation is a craft, Franczak believes, honed through the arts of inquiry, problem-solving, and careful listening. Workplace dynamics, contracts, and communication styles are each their own puzzle pieces that he has to piece together during the mediation process. Importantly, he also has to pinpoint which dynamics prevented each piece from fitting in the first place.

“My clients are not calling me in as a mediator because I’m a subject-matter expert, they’re calling me in because there’s something in terms of their people, their process, that’s getting tripped up, that’s creating barriers for them to have meaningful dialogue to resolve their issues,” Franczak said. “To me, listening is the most important. Through listening, I help each party figure out what their needs, concerns, desires, and interests are, which opens up a wider zone of potential agreement.”

Franczak urges prospective mediators to carefully study the psychology of ADR (and recommends reading books like Stuart Diamond’s “Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life” and “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone.) Because ADR is also quickly establishing itself as a growing field, he also recommends looking for mediation roles in unlikely places.

“In terms of mediation, a number of hospitals and employers are hiring ombudspersons to help problem solve within their organizations,” he said. “Federal courts are also utilizing lawyers as dispute mediators involving litigation. I’ve been called into the National Labor Relations Board to mediate conflict even post administrative law judge decisions and determinations.”

And after more than 15 years of mediating conflict for a living, how does Franczak stay so calm under pressure? A decade’s long love of yoga.

“I am a yoga warrior on weekends,” he said. “It helps me decompress from a lot of the difficulties and challenges around disputes. I usually go at least once a weekend for yoga practice, even Saturday and Sunday if I can fit it in. That’s my big release in terms of grounding me, getting back in the moment, and discovering from a mental, physical, and spiritual place where I need to be to get back in the groove for work the next Monday.”

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