Three Times a Charm? Federal Union Leaders Leave White House Empty Handed

The author asks whether there’s any significance to the new administration’s choice of labor related signings last week in which a rumored return to the Clinton era didn’t materialize.

On Thursday and Friday last week (January 29 & 30), Federal union leaders joined others cheering the new President’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (Thursday) and the rescission of a number of former President Bush’s executive orders (Friday). Interesting was the absence of the rescission of the rescission of the Clinton executive order creating partnership and giving Federal unions greater bargaining rights. Is there a long wait in store?

Feeding While DOD Employees Were Burned

One of the criticisms of Federal unions during the Clinton administration was that their leadership got wined and dined at the White House while hundreds of thousands of Federal employee defense jobs were lost to contracting. This Nero and Rome analogy isn’t mine but was widely discussed within the labor relations community as the 90s drew to a close.

Rumors abound concerning the changes that are believed imminent in the Federal union community. I have heard that permissive topics of bargaining will be mandatory and “partnership” will be reimposed. We have known one union’s agenda for some time. NTEU issued a 13 point paper with a rewrite of the Clinton order back in November of 2008. (Hey NTEU, at least you’re not superstitious!) More recently, AFL-CIO sent the President suggestions for a labor friendly agenda. (I couldn’t find an online copy. If you have one, share it.)

Sticking My Toe in the Water

The one uniform comment about the new president is that he is careful and deliberative. Those familiar with his Senate dealings say he picks good advisors and listens to them. When I heard that he was a listener, I decided to test the new White House website offer to ask questions and on January 22, sent the following email:

I understand that an executive order is imminent concerning Federal labor relations in large measure drafted by the unions. How about giving a broader group an opportunity for input? Would the administration consider the views of the career staffs who must deal with the unions and represent their Agencies and the administration’s interests in the coming years? Are you aware of the contention the Clinton order caused because it was inadequately staffed? You said you’d listen, how about it?

I certainly didn’t expect a rapid response and I’m sure there are readers of my columns who would label this junk mail but I thought it might be worth a try. We’ll see if I get a response.

President Obama’s Labor Roots

The new President is reportedly close to Andy Stern, the maverick leader of the Service Employees International. Stern led SEIU and other unions in a breakaway from AFL-CIO in 2005 over differences in approaches to unionism in the 21st century. Stern appears to believe that AFL-CIO is too conservative and focuses on the wrong audience.

While AFL-CIO’s membership fell to an all time low, SEIU’s grew dramatically. Our President worked as a community organizer in Chicago and SEIU organizes the same demographic groups that were the target of his efforts. President Obama campaigned on change. We’ll see if he’s up for the same old stuff in Federal labor relations.

The Jury’s still out on how the administration will organize its approach to the Federal worker, Agencies and missions. Stay tuned.

Any opinion stated herein 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.