10 Ways to Make Federal Unions More Effective (Part 1)

How can federal employee unions improve their success when representing employees? Here are observations and suggestions from an experienced management negotiator.

I have been involved in Federal labor relations for well over thirty years on the management side of the table. Before that I was a school teacher and bargained for five years on behalf of teachers in pay and benefits bargaining with a school system. Representing agencies, I have had many opportunities to observe Federal unions in their various iterations. What follows are some suggestions about behaviors that I saw happen. I believe these behaviors reduced the unions’ effectiveness at the bargaining table, with agency managers, career and appointed, and with bargaining unit employees generally. (Part 2 of this article)

Be careful playing in “Big P” politics

Dealing with the Hill, the White House and heavy political players is heady but, as the current climate demonstrates, can be risky business. Bush 1, familiar with government, was no enemy of Federal employees. It appeared to me that all cozying up to Clinton/Gore got the union leadership were personal invitations to White House affairs and the Federal workforce reduced by 300,000. All politicians used to expect unions to be generally Democrat-friendly but when Federal employee unions send paid staff and big money to defeat certain congressman, they must expect to suffer if that congressman wins. Never in my experience have Federal employee unions been viewed with such disdain as at present by political leaders. What goes around…

Pay attention to overall bargaining unit employee concerns

Many Federal union locals average 15% or less dues paying members. At the bargaining table this means the union’s leverage is not in membership strength or employee support but in waving the labor statute and threatening ULPs or impasse. Biting the bullet and representing non-payer issues may result in increased credibility and bargaining power.

Do some long term goal setting at the local level

I have asked every local union I’ve dealt with to give me an idea of its long term goals. I have been given answers such as “that’s confidential”, “you’ll see them in my proposals”, or “What do you mean?”

As labor relations officer and chief negotiator, it would have been helpful to know where the local wanted to go in order to shape my dealings with my own leadership. I was frequently asked by executives what it was the union wanted in the long run and frankly, was at a loss to respond as I didn’t know. Budget cycles and management change are lengthy processes I think may be better finessed than railroaded by hastily prepared or short lived demands. This kind of approach is at the heart of interest-based approaches I heard much talk about but failed to see materialize in a serious way.

Do some serious vetting of who gets nominated for elected or appointed office

Too often, individuals with old claimed injustices, personal axes to grind and histories of discontent show up representing the union. I know this sounds flip but it is easier to say no to and wrangle with someone perceived as a malcontent than an employee seen as an asset to the organization. There is no quicker turn than to hear a union bargaining team member across the table recount all his personal gripes while the negotiation was supposed to address unit-wide issues.

The most effective union official I dealt with had been a supervisor in another Federal Agency, was a very good performer on the job and got along well with his immediate supervisor. His credibility and very persuasive style of dealing made saying “no” very hard and saying “let’s work together on it” very easy. While he never rolled on an issue, I was always glad to discuss solutions with him.

Provide good advocacy training to representatives

When I asked stewards what was included in union training, I, with few exceptions, was told that the course covered selling employees on joining the union, labor history, and philosophical indoctrination. I had the privilege of being the first labor relations officer in a new recognition. I found a private sector steward’s guide to grievance handling and gave it out to the new stewards. My non-Federal experience with stewards was that they were highly trained and professional representatives that were both respected and listened to by management and supervision.

By the way, the views I express here are mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.