Labor Relations for Federal Supervisors: Book Review

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By on May 16, 2008 in Current Events with 0 Comments

By John Combs

The engaging photograph of a diverse group of smiling individuals on the cover will catch your attention when you first pickup a copy of this Labor Relations for Supervisors and Managers handbook by Phil Varnak. The photo is the first of a number of photographs, charts and graphics that make reading this well organized handbook more interesting.

There is much to like about Phil Varnak’s latest book in his labor and employee relations series.

First, I like the size, 81/2 by 10 and the spiral binding. The size allows for an easy to read print size and leaves room for wide margins on each page. Mr. Varnak has used the wide margin to emphasize important points but there is plenty of room for supervisors to put their own notes about such things as the corresponding part of the local labor agreement or a pertinent grievance or arbitration decision. The spiral binding allows the book to lie flat or to be conveniently left open to a particular page. The book seems well organized in a very readable style with ample use of bold and larger type to call attention to important points or mark a new topic.

I also like the fact that the author has included a full text copy of the Federal Service Labor Relations Statute into the book itself. This book together with the appropriate Collective Bargaining Agreement(s) (CBA) gives each supervisor a comprehensive reference set that provides a good basis for thoughtful administration of the CBA.

The handbook covers the principle labor relations topics you would expect to have in an introduction to labor relations for supervisors course, including roles of the parties, the rights and obligations of parties under the statute, types of bargaining, unfair labor practices, contract administration, robust debate and even the author’s thoughts about partnership and collaborative relationships.

What really distinguishes this handbook from most I have seen is that the author has gone beyond a dry recitation of the statutory rights and obligations and provided a reasonable amount of practical advice based on his own experience in administering labor relations programs in several federal agencies. There is, of course, some danger in that approach since everyone may not share his opinion on every topic. Some examples of helpful advice are on page 47 when discussing Weingarten meetings he describes several optional ways of handling such a meeting and includes a sample note to ask the employee to sign. On page 52 on the topic of unfair labor practice investigation, the handbook includes practical advice about how to deal with an investigator from the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). I like his advice about practical concerns with handling information requests by the union and especially his advice to discuss the matter with the labor relations advisor. His insistence on emphasizing that any change in conditions of employment must be sent to the union might lead to a few unnecessary notices but should avoid the more likely supervisor bypass of the union.

There are, however, a few places where I disagree with the author. On page 22 when the handbook lists the required subjects for bargaining, he leaves conditions of employment off the list. On page 36 in discussing corrective actions for unfair labor practices the handbook says that status quo ante remedies are often used. In my experience while such a remedy is always possible, they are rarely used, probably because they are so disruptive. In discussing past practices on page 39 the handbook says an event which occurs only once per year could become a past practice in as little as two years. In my opinion, consistently exercised over an extended period of time requires much more than repeating something once. Nevertheless, I think in general his advice is sound and will be embraced by the majority of labor relations practitioners.

I applaud Mr. Varnak’s commitment to emphasizing the importance of the supervisor’s role in the labor relations program and the consequences of a failure to meet one’s labor relations responsibilities. In several appropriate places he indicates that failing to meet an obligation or violating an employee or union right is likely to be "career limiting". I like his repeated advice on many topics to stay in touch with the designated labor relations specialists whenever the supervisor encounters a technical issue or has a question about the proper course of action.

The handbook’s treatment of the most prominent supervisory role in labor relations, the administration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, is well rounded and includes topics not often covered in labor relations literature today, such as Interested Based Bargaining (IBB), Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and even partnership. Unfortunately, the short description of IBB and ADR are not adequate to give a supervisor much appreciation of how these techniques work. I would like to see references to places where a supervisor could go to get a more thorough understanding of these topics. Most supervisors would gain very valuable skills by learning more about both ADR and IBB so good references would be worthwhile.

I particularly like the way the author links the supervisor’s role to contract negotiations and his very practical advice about contract interpretation, handling grievances and "guidelines for receiving and responding to grievances, gripes and complaints." For example, the simple admonishment to "listen first," seems simplistic but most experienced professionals learn that many of our relationship difficulties on and off the job arise from incomplete or erroneous communications. The only cure is to continuously emphasize active listening and repeating back the message one is hearing to facilitate immediate correction.

On balance, I think Labor Relations for Supervisors and Managers is well written, informative and has a great deal of very practical advice. As a complement to a good introductory course in labor relations for supervisors this handbook should prove to be a very valuable asset for any supervisor.


John Combs is a former Director of Labor Relations for the Department of the Interior, now retired and working in the Washington, DC area as a Labor Management Consultant.

Labor Relations for Supervisors and Managers is available for purchase through the author’s website.

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