Acquiring a Management Bias: Musings of an Unreconstructed Federal Sector Labor Relations Professional (or so I like to think)

What is a “management bias”? The author describes it as “a sympathy for those who must take the work forward in whatever direction the winds of political change push it.”

Some commentors on the articles I’ve written claim that my writings are anti-union, anti-employee, or voice similar sentiments. Many of these responders are surprisingly vehement. Others are even prominent being elected union officials or even counsels general. From this crowd, the kindest say that my columns have a management bias as if that was, in itself, a condemnation.

What is a Management Bias?

I have spent more than half my life representing or advising Federal Agency managers and supervisors.

On reflection, it’s hard for me to identify a single stance, position, philosophy, world view or code that could be called "pro-management". The Agency managers I dealt with were not advocates of some cause that could be termed "management". Most were trying to get a legislated mission accomplished within a fixed time on a certain budget by a set number of people. Some fared well, some didn’t. Of course that’s not to say there isn’t an ethos among those who manage in Federal government. Most of those I worked with or for were honest and ethical by the standards of their organization which were usually tougher than those extant in society as a whole. Most were clearly dismayed when facing, for the first time up close, the tangle of OPM, FLRA, EEO, OGE, GSA, or other set of rules through which they were trying to push their mission.

I remember, in particular, explaining how OWCP worked to the senior career aviation accident investigator in the U.S. (By the way, one of the absolutely smartest people I’ve ever met). Upon learning that a permanently disabled Fed would get 75% of pay tax-free for the rest of his or her life, he was obviously stunned and said, "How can that be?" A lot of conversations I’ve had with managers over the years included that question.

I must admit that I viewed my job as trying not to judge their job but rather trying to help them work their way through the mazes that confronted them on their trek through the rules. Frankly, most of what the people I worked with did for a living was incomprehensible to me. In Treasury, I worked with and for financial institution regulators. In Navy, among others, I worked for a Captain who figured out ocean temperature gradients that our subs could use to hide in or the other guy’s subs may be using to sneak up on us. All of this was way past my level of understanding. These folks came to me with the mundane business of solving an employee problem or getting a change accomplished in a union environment. These, I maintain, are not the equivalent of string theory.

I did, however, get a little bent doing this work. I discovered that some people (a thankfully small percentage) put their own interests high above the interests they had sworn on day one to advance. While I don’t believe anyone comes to work on their first day with the intent to do a bad job, I have witnessed people who, by year five or ten draw many more resources than they add to the mix. And judging from the protections they enjoy in law and regulation, must be considered by the Congress and at least one administration to be astoundingly wonderful people.

If I were to define a "management bias", I’d have to say it is a sympathy for those who must take the work forward in whatever direction the winds of political change push it. These aren’t only managers. In one Agency, a number of people in a certain office came up to me after one of their colleagues decided that leaving was more in his interest than staying. They told me they had been carrying this guy for three years and appreciated what they thought I had done. Of course, it wasn’t me but the manager who had the persistence and, yes, courage to deal with the man and I told them so. But such conversations enhanced my belief that most people want to do a good job and can despair if forced to say "He’s not heavy, he’s my coworker".

Anti-Union Animus

Most people don’t know that I was once a union representative and bargained with management on behalf of my fellow teachers. Most of us involved in that effort were looking for better pay, retirement and medical benefits. I left that occupation very favorably disposed to unions. I then encountered the federal sector. In the last 35 years, my views of private sector or state and local unions hasn’t changed much but Federal unions, for the most part, are not at all the same kind of creature.

I must start by saying that I always looked to have a positive experience and sometimes got one. The high membership unions in the Federal sector have their membership levels for a few notable reasons. The work is usually demanding, difficult or hazardous; the people are usually dedicated and determined to do a good job; and their unions care more about feathering the members’ nests than their own. The leadership of these unions is mostly representative of the members and usually operate with purpose, careful consideration and respect for those they deal with unless that respect is undeserved.

If I had to make a list of the contributing factors to my often low esteem of most Federal unions, it would include:

  1. The union’s locally elected leadership is often more self interested than member interested.
  2. The union’s locally elected leadership often spends more time second guessing the mission decisions of Agency management than bargaining better working conditions for the members.
  3. The union’s locally elected leadership often has as its goal full-time representational status and will pay any member working condition to get it.
  4. The union’s locally elected leadership is often interested in achieving personal status such as hobnobbing with Congresspersons rather than being visible as a positive change agent.
  5. The union’s locally elected leadership often refuses to take the time to understand what is regulated and what is not; how budgets work, or even how the Federal labor relations statute operates.
  6. The union’s locally elected leadership often curses and swears at Agency representatives across a bargaining table because the case law stupidly encourages such behavior.
  7. The union’s locally elected leadership is often satisfied with membership levels less than 10% because higher levels might bring in members who ask what their dues are being spent on.
  8. The union’s locally elected leadership often seeks the job in order to grind an axe of their own perceived persecution in the past or to seek the shelter of protected activity for a less than commendable work ethic.
  9. The union’s locally elected leadership often has few long term goals. Ask for a five year plan and see what you get.
  10. The union’s locally elected leadership is usually nothing like those I saw in private sector where member interests are paramount, business agents are professionals and members are many and proud to belong.

The above is not speculation. I have seen it over and over again. When President Clinton ordered career Feds to partner with the leadership of local unions, He couldn’t have known too many of them.

So now you know. I must be a card carrying pro-management anti-union kind of guy because I’ve admitted it. Or have I? You be the judge.

As always, these views are mine and do not represent those of FedSmith or the companies or clients with which I work.

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.