Bargaining Changes – How to Meet Your Objectives When Negotiating Outside the Labor Agreement

Federal managers who want to make changes for employees represented by a union during the life of a labor contract often feel frustrated by the time, effort and cost involved. These tips can help.

Practical Advice for Managers When Making Changes for Bargaining Unit Employees (Part One)

The only constant in managing within a Federal agency is change.

Congress or the Administration creates new policies or programs; your headquarters makes funding or FTE decisions which change the way the organization operates; or technology or some unforeseen event requires new systems, structures or organizations.

Almost any management change may impact a working condition, provoking the union’s interest. Since many employees in any organization, government or not, abhor change, we shouldn’t be surprised if a Federal union thinks our bright idea to deal with a management need is the actual end of civilization as they know it. Or if not civilization, at least the status quo.

A lot of Federal managers who have gone through impact and implementation (I&I), mid-term, procedures and arrangements or other bargaining not involving renegotiation of the term agreement (contract). They often walk away frustrated with the time, effort and cost involved in trying to get a change through the bargaining process.

While the Federal Labor Relations Authority’s decision creating the so-called “Covered By” Doctrine has limited Impact and Implementation bargaining to some degree, agencies still engage in significant negotiation whenever a reorganization occurs (frequently) or a space move results from a decision (more frequently) or when the contract is silent or ambiguous (more frequent yet).

This two-part article suggests on how agency management can take steps to shorten the bargaining time and pain from idea to implementation when you want or need to make a change.

1. Identify very specific goals for the initiative

The clearer you define your goals, the less likely you are to get bogged down in the process. Clear goals are easier for your chief negotiator to communicate and to stay focused on at the table. Also, the clear your goals, the better able you’ll be to decide whether you can give to get agreement. Clear goals make preparation easier by focusing on what we want and allowing us to bargain our interests.

2. Get a briefing from your labor relations or legal staff about what the I&I process entails at your agency.

If there is a labor relations staffer available to you, it is likely that person knows more about this process than any other part of labor relations because they’re in it all the time. In addition to statutory requirements governing bargaining, your contract likely contains language affecting change bargaining.

3. Prepare more thoroughly for I&I than for term negotiations particularly in the framing of the proposal and in the anticipation of the union’s reaction to the initiative.

This process is often called “single issue” bargaining because, unlike contract negotiations, there is little to trade. The agency wants what it wants and, frequently in this kind of bargaining, only that. The union, for its part and legally limited to negotiating the scope of the proposal, will try to add subjects to the negotiation, stop any perceived effect on working conditions or limit management’s flexibility in implementation to minimize the change. Knowing this, your initiative is itself a bargaining proposal, and must be carefully prepared and even more carefully written.

4. Do not presume that having a statutory right to make a change guarantees a certain and specific outcome within a specific timeframe or indeed that you have such a right in the first place.

Most I&I bargaining arises from agency management’s belief that what they want to do is protected from bargaining by “management’s rights”. While this may be a technically correct assumption, unions get to bargain over the procedures and arrangements management will follow when it implements the change.

This is the “hook” that gets the matter on the table and can bog you down in legal trivia. If you want to get your initiative done, stay away from “negotiability” arguments like the plague. In making changes, the only “neutral” you want to deal with and only then as a last resort is the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) if you and the union can’t reach agreement. A mediator may help but is too easy for the union to use to delay the process.

5. Recognize that in I&I generally and particularly in time critical matters, you are usually a seller in a buyer’s market.

It is rare that the union will like your proposed change on its face. Come to the table with lots of arguments in favor of your initiative. First try to find things the union will like and sell them. Second, come prepared to convince the union that you’ll get what you want from the FSIP so maybe there’s something in it for them by dealing before it gets that far. More about bargaining preparation in later articles.

In Part Two, we’ll look at grouping initiatives, information requests and other issues affecting change bargaining.

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.