What Factors Make A Good Labor Relations Program?

What factors are necessary to have a good, effective labor relations program in a federal agency? Here are some criteria.

Possible indicators of a successful program from an agency perspective

Recently, I wrote about 10 things management could do to be more effective in labor relations. The question those articles begged was, “What’s a good labor relations program?”

Historically, labor relations in the Federal service, unlike other management programs, hasn’t gotten much long term scrutiny addressing its success or failure.

A number of reasons have been proffered for this state of affairs. These reasons include a reactive approach by many Agencies in which management responds to union initiatives seeing nothing in the program from which it can gain; the bilateral nature of the program which some claim leaves management without sufficient control to make a difference; and, political winds which blow an Agency program in one direction or another making labor relations policy decisions a career risk for senior executives regardless of the party in power.

There has been little serious discussion of what a successful program might involve.

To get some discussion going, I’d like to suggest some indicators that might be used to assess Agency success in labor relations.

  1. 1Union impact on the actual mission is neutral or better.
  2. Employees generally do not project an us (workforce) v. them (management) view to customers.
  3. Organizational change is not so painful that it is a last resort.
  4. Direct and indirect costs driven by the contract are less than costs in similar bargaining unit environments.
  5. Supervision/middle management is not unreasonably burdened by cumbersome negotiated rules.
  6. The contract is relatively easily administered.
  7. Agency management regularly looks for opportunities presented by bargaining to improve problem practices or procedures.
  8. The grievance to arbitration ratio is high.
  9. The amount and cost of litigation involving labor relations issues is acceptable and decisions to litigate are made in line management versus staff areas.
  10. Statutory change to make the program more Agency-specific is considered in the context of appropriation or reauthorization processes.

A former general counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority made some suggestions for Agency overall strategy. Interestingly, the suggestions were made to FLRA Regional Directors as guidance on doing their job. Not surprisingly, based on that GC’s post-Federal employment job advising unions, these plans were to be developed bilaterally.

I don’t discount nor do I distain cooperative or collaborative labor-management relationships as long as Agency management first knows and carries out its duties to the mission as a priority. What got lost in years past was that interest-based bargaining is just that, a process for the advancement of a party’s interests not a code word for a political agenda by the administration at the time.

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.