10 Ways to Make Federal Unions More Effective (Part 2)

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

More observations from the other side of the table.

In Part 1, I covered the first five suggestions for making federal employee unions more effective. Here are the last five observations.

Represent people aggressively but be careful whom you seek to make a hero

While every employee deserves good representation, I have been involved in disciplinary actions where a lot of bargaining unit employees approached me to thank me for helping get rid of someone. Of course I told them I was not at liberty to discuss any employee’s issues with another person and that in any case I was only an advisor not a decision maker. Coworkers know when someone is not cutting it or causes problems. In some of these cases the union involved told anyone who would listen that their principal goal was vindication and a full return to duty if not “sainthood”. I think that was not the desire of many of those coworkers who had carried or had to clean up after the person the union was championing.

Avoid massive contract rewrites when proposing a renegotiation

Massive generic union proposals are a trademark of Federal unions. In large organizations, this often produces equally massive preparations by management to fend off what is perceived as threatening large scale unanticipated and unbudgeted change. In the end, little results in movement from the status quo except language changes of “happy” to “glad and “small dog” to “puppy”. I have often wondered what would happen if the union showed up a year before the contract expired and proposed three major improvements in working conditions accompanied by impact statements and cost estimates. I think the fortress building might not get a chance to get off the ground.

Never trade a working condition concession for a union institutional gain

Every experienced management bargainer with whom I discussed this issue says that it is their strong belief that a Federal union could be bought off of any working condition issue by the offer of more official time, better office space or other union benefit. This belief whether factual or not colors many Federal bargaining efforts.

Avoid seeking to make or participate in mission decisions

Private sector union representatives stay out of management and supervision decision making as a virtual article of faith. Their take is that it is their job to represent employees exclusively and they have no time to manage the company. Also, in the private sector, it is generally a union belief that helping management make decisions more often backfires to the union’s detriment if the decision fails to produce the desired result. Federal union officials are often publicly critical of manager’s mission decisions and seek through bargaining to get involved in those decisions. The Federal labor statute recognizes a role for Federal unions. Seeking to manage is the equivalent of forgetting your “niche” for a businessman.

Tone down the rhetoric and squelch the abusive language

While with the Department of the Navy, I met and dealt with a Teamsters’ business agent whose local had been elected to replace a Federal union. Apparently, the Federal union’s local leadership had asked the Teamsters to take over after a rift with the national union. The business agent said that he was chagrinned by the language and deportment of the Federal employee union representatives in meetings with Navy management. He went on to say that these union representatives didn’t seem to understand that bad feelings even if unexpressed by the recipient at the time of an incident may work against you for a very long time. I heard almost anything including racial slurs, abusive and foul language from union representatives throughout my career. I always believed that this behavior sidetracked the meeting whatever the purpose and never produced a good result.

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.