“Collective Begging” Returning to Federal Labor Relations Program?

The new personnel system for the Department of Defense will look much different and result in much less participation by unions in day-to-day affairs of the agency

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) created a civil service system and a labor relations program that was allegedly designed to create an efficient and effective work force.

A quarter of a century later, the verdict from Congress and a large portion of the government is in: It didn’t create an efficient and effective work force. Instead, the CSRA resulted in a system that was bureaucratic, rewarded seniority over performance and gave unions a large role in the operations of an agency. The system created delays and problems that restricted efficiency and effectiveness and harmed the ability of the government to accomplish its goals. That, at least, is the conclusion one can reasonably draw from reviewing the changes that are on their way to being implemented in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The majority of the federal government is going to have a much different civil service system. The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security are dramatically changing the rules that apply to federal employees and to federal employee unions. While the CSRA adopted much of the pay system and other existing rules of the civil service system, the new systems are much different. The systems in DHS and DoD are not identical but they are very similar.

Here are the primary goals of the new National Security Personnel System (NSPS) as stated by DoD:

Seven Guiding Principles of Proposed NSPS Personnel System

1. Put mission first – support National Security goals and strategic objectives

2. Respect the individual; protect rights guaranteed by law

3. Value talent, performance, leadership and commitment to public service

4. Be flexible, understandable, credible, responsive, executable

5. Ensure accountability at all levels

6. Balance HR interoperability with unique mission requirements

7. Be competitive and cost effective

Or, stated differently, the old civil service system didn’t work so we need a new one.

A related article highlights many of the new changes in the DoD personnel system. Here are some of the major changes to the labor relations portion of the new system.

For managers, human resources or labor relations people that would like to restrict the power and authority of labor unions in the Department of Defense, and would like to speed up the ability of the agency to implement new policies and regulations, the new labor relations structure looks like a dream that has come true. The new structure will severely restrict the role of unions in the agency.

The new system will expand the area of topics that are not open to negotiations. Under the CSRA, some topics were “permissive.” These topics included numbers, types and grades of employees, methods, technology and means of performing work. With the exception of the era of “partnership” directed by President Clinton, most agencies did not want to bargain on these topics. But under the new DoD system, it is not an option.

Perhaps more importantly, the new labor relations structure will prohibit bargaining over procedures the agency will use in exercising management rights. In a return to the old executive order system issued by Presidents Nixon and Kennedy, the agency will consult with unions that represent employees, give their views the consideration they think they deserve, and then move on. In other words, agreement of a union is not an issue and decisions by the agency will not be delayed while negotiations drag on for days, sometimes for week, and occasionally for months or years.

And, if the prohibition of bargaining on management rights and the procedures used to implement management rights was not sufficient to speed up the decision-making process, there is another broad restriction. Directives, policies and manuals issued by the Department of Defense or “component-wide issuances” are not subject to bargaining either.

The proposed system does call for bargaining over procedures in exercising other management rights (e.g., layoffs, reduction-in-force, selection or promotion procedures, disciplinary actions). While that sounds good and is certainly substantive, there is one big caveat. The bargaining will be done after the decision has been implemented which, obviously, will seriously limit the role of the unions in any substantive way.

And, in the event anything was missed so far, nothing in the labor relations system will delay management’s ability to act to accomplish its mission.

There are a few other major changes to the labor relations system as well.

A National Security Labor Relations Board will be set up to resolve labor disputes. This new board will take over most of the functions currently performed by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The new board will have members apointed by the Secretary of Defense.

The new system will retain negotiated grievance procedures with arbitration but with several major caveats. The procedures will exlude matters relating to pay and performance ratings. A separate administrative process will be created to reconsider performance ratings and to ensure consistency in the way ratings can be challenged by employees.

There will also be new restrictions on the representation rights and duties of union representatives. A union representative will still be allowed to attend “formal discussions” where the purpose is to discuss changes to personnel policies, practices, or working conditions. But a supervisor will no longer have to bother with inviting the union to discussions over operational matters or EEO complaint proceedings unless acting as the personal representative of an employee.

And, in another blow to the expansion of union involvement in management meetings that occurred during the past decade or so, unions will be excluded from investigations conducted by Inspector General or other DoD investigating organizations.

Prior to the passage of the CSRA in 1978, AFGE national representatives gave speeches in various forums referring to the labor relations system as one of “collective begging” rather than “collective bargaining.” They argued, successfully, for a legislative system that gave unions more power and authority in the federal government. They also argued a legislative fix was needed because it was too easy to change an executive order but that a law would protect employees and protect expanded union rights.

The new systems now being proposed will actually be more restrictive than some of the old executive order programs that were in place.

One has to wonder if the strategy employed by unions over the past decade of routinely supporting one party and becoming actively involved in national political campaigns has caused any soul searching among the leaders of the major federal employee unions. So far, there is no evidence of a change in strategy or approach. But, without a doubt, the new labor relations programs have eliminated most of the gains achieved in the past 25 years or so.

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