Bargaining Your Interests in the Obama Era: Ten Things Agencies Should Do to Prepare

As President Obama is inaugurated, the author suggests agencies should revisit their approaches to labor relations. He provides a list of ten things every Agency should be doing to get a better handle on its interests in a time of rising union expectations.

Labor relations in the government is always political whether in the large P of parties and appointees or the small p of internal relationships in specific Agencies. What approach the new administration will take to inside dealings with labor is anyone’s guess. The union leadership appears to believe that "IBB", that’s Interest Based Bargaining will make a comeback in the days ahead. Of course, IBB is kind of a misnomer. I would hope that all but fools bargain what’s in their own or, if a representative, their principal’s interests.

The Past as Prologue

The 90s idea of an "IBB approach" to Federal sector negotiations started out by involuntarily placing a group of management people at a table "identifying perceived problems" and "crafting solutions" with their union counterparts. This approach met with some interesting problems on both sides of the table that ended it as a meaningful process in a number of Agencies.

From the Agency perspective, those who could be spared to engage in a lengthy process over very limited issues lacked the clout and in some cases the good judgment required to either identify problems or generate workable solutions. Agency leadership tired of what it perceived as whining by the unions and second guessing of their decisions. From the union perspective, the promise of "pre-decisional involvement" in Agency operational matters quickly gave way to limiting its role to traditional working conditions issues surrounding reorganizations and space moves. In other words, those who played were never really players.

"IBB" evolved because it had to. You can’t have a proclaimed "P" political initiative supported by the Vice President, Federal Labor Relations Authority, Federal Service Impasses Panel, the Office of Personnel Management and a National Partnership Council fall on its face just because it was inimical to the way top down government works and the fact that Federal unions really aren’t unions. So "IBB" became the critter of endless training sessions by FLRA attorneys who had never bargained anything but a corner office and engendered the creation of a number of facilitators in the agencies listed above whose job it was to help the parties reach alternative dispute resolutions. Shakespeare’s quote about a tale told by an idiot was right on point.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service which had over 50 years on the job by then and some small experience in labor dispute resolution saw a number of competitors arise that somehow never achieved the Service’s stature. It appeared that FMCS was largely unasked or, if asked, unheeded in light of the preconceived notions of a bunch of amateurs who had religiously read "Getting to Yes" but little else. But, of course, I’ve been criticized in the past for suggesting the use of traditional but workable "DR" processes in the face of more trendy and contemporary "ADR" efforts.

So "IBB" was emblazoned on the Partnership flag in a "Don’t Tread on Me" kind of way. Collaboration must always be better, Right? Can’t we all just be nice? In the end, some organizations found out that sitting down and talking could lower tensions and lead to less dramatic relations. Others found that a forced "bargaining system" wasn’t workable and returned to proposals but bargained them in an "interest based setting", Huh? Yet others fed by the substantial gaps in their relative practical interests kept at traditional processes while keeping smiley faces on in meetings to make sure they were "p" politically correct. Not a lot happened in the 90s. Nothing at all happened in 2001-2009 that wasn’t "P" driven and why should that surprise anyone. Federal unions campaigned for the other guys and vilified the serving president, in some cases, calling him and his appointees Nazis publicly.

So Now What

The pendulum has swung and we have the first labor president since JFK. (LBJ was a Texan, after all, and they don’t even allow the word union in school dictionaries.) This president really appears to be a man of the people. He certainly doesn’t spring from a dynastic political family and, so far at least, he has been nothing but consistent on placing his focus on working Americans. Selecting a Federal manager as OPM Director may be a statement we’ll have to wait on for a meaning. But everyone seems to agree that he’s been smarter than a lot of recent presidents in his campaigning and his pre-inaugural efforts to give his administration a running start.

Interests Will Be More Important Than Ever

Regardless of the administration’s agenda or approach to labor relations, one thing is sure. Federal unions’ expectation that an Obama government will favor them is off the charts. Everywhere I go I hear from managers that their local unions see Obama as a messianic figure, empowering them and bringing justice to all those downtrodden Feds who feel the jackbooted heel of their oppressors on their necks each day. Get a grip.

Practically speaking, if labor plays a more influential role in those considerations leading to Agency decisions, managers better dust off or learn some very specific skill sets. What managers did poorly in the last round of "IBB" was to identify their own real interests as they are impacted by collective bargaining. My top ten on the bargaining your interests hit parade are:

  1. Those dealing with the unions at the national level need to do a much better job connecting with local operating officials who do real as opposed to staff work.
  2. Management must work harder at nailing down what is essential, helpful or unimportant to get, keep, or avoid.
  3. The unions are organized across agencies. More effort needs to be made in bringing together labor relations decision makers (not just practitioners) to learn from and share info with their counterparts.
  4. Agencies must get a better grip on what’s on the Federal table and what’s not.
  5. Each Agency should create a Collective Bargaining Official (CBO) at a senior level to coordinate not only bargaining but all labor relations decision making.
  6. Agency Offices of Counsel need to work more closely to avoid fragmented litigation and recognize that "bad cases make bad case law".
  7. Start thinking about Federal sector "pattern bargaining" to reduce costs and minimize bad agreements resulting from naiveté, ignorance or other cause.
  8. Build a cadre of managers with labor relations know how.
  9. Do a better job of training supervisors and, more importantly, making them part of a management team approach to labor relations.
  10. Get labor relations information out to supervisors and managers in a timely manner.

This is the first in a series of articles on recognizing and developing your interests as they relate to labor relations. I’ll address the ten points above in greater detail and make some suggestions on practical approaches.

As always, any opinion (if you can find one) expressed above is mine and 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.