10 Things Agency Management Can Do to be More Effective in Labor Relations (Part 1)

What steps can a federal agency take to make its labor relations program more effective? Here are suggestions in part one of a two-part series.

I recently wrote about ways Federal unions could be more effective. A number of commentators suggested I turn a similar spotlight on management which is the purpose of this article.

Suggestions to Federal management to get their labor relations house in order

1. Get organized and create a CBO

Identify key decision makers in the organization that set policies affected by collective bargaining. Name a Collective Bargaining Official(CBO). The CBO is a senior executive or manager who is involved in decision making and can be trained to recognize issues with labor relations consequences early in their development. This helps avoid getting so far down a road on issues that adjustments cannot be made without excessive costs or delays. Get your key players together to discuss how decisions will be made. The middle of negotiations is not the time to do this.

2. Get a real strategy

Few, if any, Federal agencies have a realistic labor relations strategy. Most have a policy which says little and hasn’t been revised since E.O. 10988.

The strategy should address delegations of authority, medium to long term negotiation goals and how labor relations issues will be handled within management. Additionally, agencies have opportunities to shape their policies legislatively. FAA, DHS, DoD, and others have unique labor relations statutory language. Unhappy with 5 U.S.C. 7101 and following, write your own rules or customize the statute to suit your needs.

3. Present a single face

The rule should be “one unit – one exclusive spokesperson”.

This is the most often broken rule in government. Everybody in management believes themselves to be savvy, skilled negotiators and, of course, smarter than the union. Union reps frequently share information which is more than almost any management group I’ve ever worked with does. As a result, the union knows much more about what’s going on than any manager. A single spokesperson can ensure that information actually represents the sender’s intent whether coming or going.

4. Decide what relationship you want or is possible and follow through

The continuum from “Give ‘em nothing and make it retroactive” to “Find out what they want and give it to ‘em ‘til they beg you to stop” is a vast one. I personally favor “professional, courteous, contractual and legal” as the four corners of a productive relationship. While Agencies and unions may share certain goals, essential differences are inevitable. This is particularly true in government where neither profit nor employee benefits are job one.

5. Teach labor relations and get managers in line

No one should be able to supervise or manage bargaining unit employees without specific training. Additionally line managers dealing with unit employees should go to “finishing school” to learn what they cannot say, what they cannot do without higher level clearance and the consequences to the agency and them if they get out of line. Most of the litigation in Federal sector arises from ignorance of laws and contract obligations.

Although expansion of the law through litigation has been the hallmark of certain FLRA GCs, it usually couldn’t be done without a management mistake to create the opportunity.

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.