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Adversarial Relations Become A Hard Habit To Break

by Mark D. Roth, Esq. |

More than two years have passed since President Barack Obama revived a Clinton-era initiative designed to help federal agency managers and labor officials agree on how to better deliver government services. The council that the administration created to spearhead this initiative has started to assess its achievements, and it will be interesting to see how successful it has been at improving worker productivity and promoting satisfactory labor relations.

Federal sector union officials, though, should not be holding their breath for stellar results.

Back in December 2009, Obama issued Executive Order 13522, which created the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations. The council was tasked with developing agency-level non-adversarial forums where union officials and agency managers could discuss labor issues before management made decisions on them. The process is known as pre-decisional involvement (PDI).

Such forums were direly needed because labor-management relations had become increasingly adversarial, with managers often making unilateral decisions about labor issues without input from front-line workers. Consequently, much time and money was spent as union officials sought more information, bargained over implementation concerns and made appropriate arrangements to minimize the impact on affected bargaining unit members.

Since the end of last year, the council has been collecting and assessing reports from agencies detailing the effectiveness of the labor-management forums. Agencies are required to annually submit these metrics reports, and the council provided a glimpse at the achievements detailed in the first wave of reports at its monthly meeting last January. According to minutes of the meeting, the achievements included:

  • a $203,000 in cost savings at the Department of Justice from the issuance of one computer to staff attorneys in a bargaining unit at the Executive Office of Immigration Review as opposed to both a desktop and laptop;
  • a 50 percent decrease in the number of U.S. Department of Commerce employees traveling to meetings through the utilization of teleconferencing;
  • a $16,000 in monthly cost savings at the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the biweekly distribution of webIT service releases;
  • an increase in the Agriculture Department’s recycling program from 35 percent to 43 percent; and
  • a 3 percent increase in overall quality service at the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The non-adversarial approach to collective bargaining thrived in the 1990s with the labor-management partnerships established by the Clinton administration under Executive Order 12871. However, the Bush administration revoked this executive order in 2001, and when the Obama administration revived the initiative in 2009 it lacked the teeth of its predecessor. There are no consequences if forums are not taken seriously, and the council’s shortlist of lackluster achievements indicates that some agencies are doing just that.

It would be a wasted opportunity if management uses the labor-management forums to focus too intently on minor cost-cutting initiates, such as those highlighted by the council, at the expense of actively engaging labor. In times of shrinking budgets, unions and management know that they must solve problems and perform the work differently – smarter, more efficiently, and more effectively. The pressure and the value of cooperation are greater than the same old pattern of acting adversarially like a rebel without a cause.

In the federal sector, it is no longer “natural” nor does it make good business sense to not take advantage of PDI and the more relaxed setting of a labor-management forum to achieve good government. Union leaders should embrace the non-adversarial approach and be more proactive in pursuing PDI. They should consult with a union development specialist who could advise them on labor-management forums, provide non-adversarial problem-solving strategies and even facilitate joint labor-management workshops or trainings.

© 2014 Tully Rinckey PLLC. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Tully Rinckey PLLC.

About the Author

Photo of Mark D. Roth, Esq.

Mark D. Roth, Esq.

Mark D. Roth is the former long-time general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees. He is a union development specialist and senior counsel at Tully Rinckey PLLC, a multi-state federal employment law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Arlington, Va. and Albany, N.Y. He concentrates his practice on federal labor law and can be reached at mroth@fedattorney.com.

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