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The history of negotiation, mediation and arbitration

Skunk Oil Communication by Major Estes

[1]While working at both USCS and FMCS, Major Charles Estes often emphasized the importance of communication in labor management relations. He frequently used his ‘Skunk Oil Story’ to illustrate the importance of quick and clear communication. Estes often used his Skunk Story in trainings and lectures.

He told his story like this:

While mediating a dispute at a mining company, Estes could see through the conference room doorway into an adjoining office. During the meeting, he noticed a company official rush into the adjoining room and remove a panel from a ventilation duct. Then he took an eyedropper from a small bottle and dropped several drops into the duct, before replacing the panel and leaving the room.

Estes was so intrigued by what he had observed that he later asked the mine superintendent about it. The superintendent said that there must be some problem in the mine that required an evacuation. From experience, management had learned that informing miners by word-of-mouth, the public address system, or by sounding an alarm resulted in confusion, misunderstanding, delay and panic. They had learned that a few drops of skunk oil in the mine ventilation system sends a clear and unmistakable message to everyone at the same time. [2]

Lou Towers worked as Estes’ assistant for a number of years. He described Estes as a colorful showman with a booming voice who could be very bombastic, but also very charming. Estes was comfortably wealthy based on a family owned Department Store run by his brother Henry in Georgia.

Outside of his duties with the mediation service, Estes and his sister Alice organized, managed and funded an educational speaker program in Washington D.C. which each month featured well know speakers on political and cultural issues. These free lectures featured such well-known individuals as William Buckley and members of Congress and the Administration.

Estes brother Henry funded a foundation in Georgia named after Major Estes, which made educational grants to underprivileged students.

During most of Estes’ mediation career, he was assigned to the Washington National Office. His career ended as a mediator in St. Louis in in the early 1950s.


[1] Estes had been a major in the U.S. Army. He choose to continue to using it as a civilian.

[2] Two mediators who worked with Major Estes provided useful information for this post: My oral history interview of Lou Towers in 1988, and long discussions with Charles Tilton while we shared office space for six months in the FMCS national office in 1964.

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