Politics, Labor Relations and Federal Managers: How to Avoid Problems and Get Promoted

Labor relations policies vary between agencies and with different administrations. Here are a few tips to help agency managers stay out of trouble.

Ralph Smith is an original co-author of The Supervisor’s Guide to Federal Labor Relations and The Union Representative’s Guide to Federal Labor Relations.

It’s hard to believe that the federal labor relations statute hasn’t changed. But while policies and theories have changed, the underlying statute is the same as it was when it became law in 1978.

A few years ago, President Clinton surprised most agency labor relations professionals by announcing the government was going to be a partner with unions representing federal employees. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The increasing political involvement of federal unions was bound to have consequences and when the candidate they supported won the election, the unions expected and received a political benefit. Under Clinton, unions were given a much bigger role in agency decisions impacting employees. This was interpreted in different ways in different agencies but in its most extreme form, unions took on the role of co-managers. Agency managers that didn’t comply were told they would be turned in to the political authorities for not going along with the president’s directive to bargain on a wide range of topics that were previously not open to discussion.

Playing politics at the national level can also result in significant policy changes when your candidate doesn’t win. Unions went all out in their support of Al Gore’s presidential campaign. So, when President Clinton left office, it didn’t take President Bush long to dismiss the partnership theory after federal unions publicly worked to elect his opponent.

Bureaucratic warfare broke out over the role of unions in the new Department of Homeland Security and whether airport screeners would be in or out of bargaining units represented by unions. There was no catchy political slogan attached to this approach but it clearly was not going to be a partnership arrangement with unions sharing power in agencies. And, just as clearly, having a union report to political authorities that a manager wasn’t cooperating was no longer a threat.

Of course, agencies that agreed to favorable contract terms under partnership still had those contracts in place and now faced the job of getting rid of some of the more undesirable provisions.

Federal managers don’t make the political decisions that create these wide swings in federal labor relations policy. But they are stuck with trying to implement the new policies that inevitably follow national elections. What should a manager do? If you are a federal manager, your job to create and manage an effective work unit hasn’t changed. What can you do to avoid creating problems for yourself and your agency?

Darryl Roberts is the Chief of Labor Relations for the US Patent and Trademark Office. This job is well-known throughout the labor relations community for being a tough, demanding job. Darryl has been involved in labor relations for a number of years under different administrations with different labor relations policies. You can benefit from his experience and knowledge.

At an upcoming labor relations conference in Arlington, VA, Darryl will be speaking on “The Top Ten Things a Manager Should Know When Working with Unions.” Or, stated differently, what does a manager need to know to avoid getting in trouble?

You will have to attend his presentation to get the whole list. But here are a couple of the suggestions he has for federal managers. (The tips are his; the explanation of them is mine so don’t blame him for anything with which you may disagree in the explanation.)

Understand your bargaining obligations. What does agency management want out of its labor relations program? Is it trying to expand or restrict the scope of the bargaining agreement? Is it emphasizing setting up a smooth labor relationship or are there significant problems that have to be resolved and that will create inevitable conflict with the union that represents your employees?

While managers don’t generally make the political and policy decisions that go into a bargaining agreement, the success or failure of these decisions rests largely in the hands of the first and second-level supervisors in an agency. If you don’t know what goals the agency wants to reach in dealing with unions, you are asking for trouble.

Are you expected to bargain with a union on assigning overtime or making work assignments? Does your agreement cover these topics? If you do bargain on how you will make these decisions, how are your decisions going to impact other supervisors in your agency?

Closely related to this is application of the labor agreement. While you may have had little or no input into the labor contract, you need to understand how the agreement is to be interpreted and applied. If no one has given you any information, get with your labor relations advisor. If they give you the brush-off (lack of time, lack of staff, lack of interest, etc.), you have probably been around the agency long enough to know how to create bureaucratic pressure and force them to do their job. If they don’t help you, and you make a mistake that creates problems, the responsibility for the mistakes will end up in your lap. Be an irritating presence in the organization if you have to in order to get their attention.

While you don’t have to be an expert on appeals and grievances, you should know the difference. What is an unfair labor practice? What is a grievance? What is your role in these processes? How are you affected by these processes? If you are going to be involved in implementing your agency’s labor relations program, and you are going to be effective, it is almost certain you will need to understand if only to know when a threat to file a grievance or unfair labor practice is real or just blowing smoke.

Generally, what rights and obligations does management have under the labor relations statute and what rights and obligations do unions and employees have? You don’t have to be an expert but you do need to understand your role and how to look out for the interests of your agency.

Even if you have very little knowledge of the federal labor relations program, you can easily see that while the labor relations law hasn’t changed, there is a lot of room for flexibility. Your agency can take a hard line in dealing with unions representing employees and be well within the constraints of the labor statute. The agency can also legally give unions a lot of power, services and financial support and be well within the limits of the statute. But a federal manager doesn’t want to find he is implementing his own labor relations policy unique to a small part of the overall organization. That is not a good way to enhance your career or your effectiveness within your organization.

To find out more about how to be an effective manager in your agency, and to meet Darryl Roberts to find out how you can work more effectively with unions in your agency, check out the labor relations conference information and plan on meeting him in Arlington later this month.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47