Chilling the Rancor: Suggestions for Federal Union Officials Likely to Produce Positive Results in Labor Relations

The author offers some suggestions to Federal union officials in developing productive relationships with Agency officials. Having served as a representative of both employees and management in his career, the author discusses barriers he has seen created by attitudes that appear widespread in the Federal union community.

If you are a union representative, can you read through to the bottom of this article without hitting the "Comment" button and being in such a hurry to object, you can’t spell anything right?

Since becoming a Federal employee in 1974, after six years of teaching high school and serving as my school’s representative for five of them, I was amazed by the counterproductive and frequently self defeating behavior I witnessed by many Federal union representatives and still am. I must somewhat qualify my remarks regarding blue collar reps.  Most of the IBEW, IAM, MTC, Teamster, and other tool wielding union folks were generally savvier and always smarter about how Agencies worked than those in "white" collar jobs.

While a teacher rep, I was taught to study the school system, its policies and politics, very carefully. I was also instructed that administrators were frequently in their jobs a long time and that "trust" was often a function of predictability. I learned that leverage, its identification and use, was variable and formed the only basis for any influence the union might have. I don’t know why the blue collar reps are so much better at working the available levers but suspect it may relate to the practical versus theoretical nature of their daily work.  Perhaps there’s a carryover effect to labor relations of doing "real" work that is evident in its outcome.

So here are my top things union reps can do to be more effective.

1.  Get Some Distance from an Issue.

Messianic belief in an employee’s story of horrid management abuse coupled with monumental outrage at the obvious mistreatment of a beleaguered Federal employee with few benefits and totally lacking in redress options won’t cut it. If you want to serve your constituent/client/potential grievant effectively, get some objectivity or give it to another rep. The old saw that a self representing lawyer has a fool for a client is only funny if it can’t be applied to you.

If your local is broke and can’t afford a business agent, it’s probably because the leadership does a crummy organizing job or that employees don’t care whether there’s a union or not.  Find a way to encourage membership and get the bucks to hire a pro.  A professional representative will ALWAYS do better than the inside talent if for no other reason than they are more able to develop medium to long range goals and go about obtaining them.  Usually, when I asked the local leadership if it had a plan, I got a vacant stare or a "HUH"?

2.  Consider Term Limits for Elected Union Officials.

If term limits are a good idea for politicians, how about union politicians?  Hanging around on official time and not doing your "day" job for all or part of a day while you complain about management can become a very comfortable arrangement.  Little changes and new ideas are few and far between.  Take a look at your local’s demographics.  If the leadership is a different age, race or gender, it may be time to shuffle the cards.

3.  Vet Stewards and Officers.

Even if membership is low (maybe even specifically in that case), don’t elect or appoint anyone to a representative that has a recent record of discipline or performance problems, is a job jumper or whose coworkers wouldn’t trust to run the coffee fund.  Self-interested or grudge holding reps are always working their own agenda and it’s reflected in the quality of their representation work.

4.  Require Representatives to Learn the Ins and Outs of the Labor Law, Contract, Agency Operations and Human Resource Policies.

I once sat at a bargaining table during contract negotiations in which the union proposed a 26 page "Merit Promotion" article.  I was a little amazed since the Agency generally hired into career ladder jobs and the only promotion actions were into supervision.  Amazed, that is, until I discovered that the local bargainers didn’t know that the Agency could refuse to bargain over the filling of supervisory jobs.  I think we ended up with a three section article after the union’s national rep explained things.  If potential reps aren’t willing to learn the "business", for heaven’s and the unit’s sake, don’t let them represent employees.  It’s unfair to everyone involved.

5.  Change Your Focus from Litigation to Negotiation.

Learn about leverage.  Know when you have it, when you don’t.  When the other guy has it, look for ways to get some yourself.   In most cases, by the time Federal cases work their way through the various systems, no one recalls why they were filed.  Leverage is a fleeting tool and must be used or lost while it’s on your side.  If you don’t have a clue about what I just said, please don’t become a union rep.

6.  Bargain Smarter.

I constantly watch a repeating saga. The union puts a hundred or so changes to a contract on the table. Reacting to this challenge, management assembles a team, girds its loins for a big effort and prepares to bargain. The parties end up at the Panel after considerable time and little or nothing changes.  I’m convinced that if the union put three or four initiatives on the table, sold them in advance and got employees interested (none of which I ever saw happen), they’d get most or all of what they wanted.  Management has other agenda and if you wake them up, they’ll out prepare you every time.  It’s a function of resources

7.  Solicit Input and Listen to Non-Member Unit Employees.

You want members, find out what the non-members want and put it on the table.  I was labor director at a place with a lot of  professionals. I hinted that a proposal establishing a book and periodical allowance for each employee might be received favorably. I never saw the proposal. I guess since the union leaders didn’t want to learn anything new, they assumed the workforce didn’t either.

8.  Don’t Submit an SF-1187 at the Same Time as a Grievance or Other Appeal.

Every single labor relations specialist in the Federal government will tell you that a grievance from a non-member is either accompanied or followed shortly by a request for dues withholding.  It’s the #1 joke in the program.  You want credibility, this will not get it. I also recently saw an LM-3 (Union financial report to DOL) that indicated that every employee who had a case arbitrated in a certain unit within at least a three-four year period had paid the cost of the arbitration themselves. That’s a shameful thing.

9.   Chill the Rancor.

The Federal sector is the home of atrocious union language and demeanor. Cursing, swearing, demeaning personal attacks and the like are unfortunately frequent characteristics of Federal union representatives as compared to their private sector counterparts by a large margin. Folks, just because some political appointee at FLRA thinks bad language is a protected activity doesn’t mean you must engage in it. I observed Federal managers, military and civilian, who had risen in government service in respectable careers sit and take personal abuse because they were instructed that they had to.  What is absolutely true, but will never be said aloud, is that such bad behavior can make that manager into a skilled, smart and motivated opponent whose unspoken but deep felt personal motto may be "Give ’em nothin’ and make it retroactive".

If I’m wrong about your local, I apologize. If I’m right, I hope this may help to focus on some obstacles that can be easily eliminated with the right approach.

As always, the opinions stated here are mine alone.

This will be my last article for a few weeks.  I’m on vacation in a country with as rich a labor union heritage as any, Bella Italia.  So Caio until I get back.


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.