Bargaining Your Interests: What’s It All About

What are your “interests” in bargaining a labor agreement? What are the implications for your interests during negotiations with a federal labor union? Here are considerations an agency should understand about “interest based bargaining” in the federal environment.

Let me start with a quote I saw about bargaining, Money can’t buy love, but it improves your bargaining position. – Christopher Marlowe

Everyone seems to agree that after the President solves Islamic radicalism, universal health care, the current economic catastrophe and maybe tooth decay, he will sooner or later come to dealing with the pressing issues in Federal labor relations. (Really!) Also generally agreed is that some form of interest-based bargaining system will be advanced. After all, it is a Harvard developed concept, isn’t it?

For those who toil daily and mightily in the representation of Agencies in bargaining with their exclusive representatives, maybe it’s time we revisited what exactly an interest might be and the implications of that for negotiations.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ (AFSCME) website offers a good definition. It says “an interest is the basic need or concern that is addressed by the proposal”. Now I won’t tell (if you won’t) that there aren’t supposed to be proposals in interest based bargaining, so let’s just leave the proposal part out and focus on the “basic need or concern” part.

While I can hear the comments already about how I never take the union side, we’ll focus on interests from an Agency perspective.

Big Picture Interests

Since goals and interests are closely aligned, it’s worth a look at this administration’s principal goals for an Agency. For example, here are the Obama/Biden objectives for the Department of Defense:

  • Fully Equip Our Troops for the Missions They Face
  • Review Weapons Programs
  • Preserve Global Reach in the Air
  • Maintain Power Projection at Sea
  • National Missile Defense
  • Ensure Freedom of Space
  • Protect the U.S in Cyberspace

So to the degree labor relations butts up against one of these, DOD would seek to advance or secure it’s ability to accomplish the Big Picture goal as a priority.

All the Time, Regular, Boring but Critical Interests

Each Agency shares interests in common which affect bargaining. You wouldn’t believe it though. There is virtually no coordination between Agencies in labor relations despite Federal unions’ eager divide and conquer strategies. But that’s for another article.

This list is incomplete for a lot of reasons but you’ll understand why when you read it. In any case, each of these is important to assess when faced with union initiatives. Your obligation is to consider the effect of these items on what the union wants. The list:

  • Mission Accomplishment
  • Public Confidence
  • Fiscal Responsibility
  • Employee Morale
  • Compliance with Law or Regulation
  • Stepping on Another Agency’s Toes
  • Ethics
  • Equal Employment Opportunity
  • Ability to Respond to Change
  • Making the IG Happy or Maybe, at Best, less Vicious or Intrusive

See what I mean about an incomplete list? The issues are different to some degree from Agency to Agency. The chore is figuring out what’s important to a greater or lesser degree in your organization.

Management Interests Directly Related to Collective Bargaining

Every once in a while, executives or managers get a bee in their bonnets about the appearance the management generally gets little from labor agreements. I have been sent to tilt full tilt at this windmill on more than one occasion. Of course, management doesn’t get much because there isn’t much to get it doesn’t already have. When it inevitably pops up, you’d be best served not to whine publicly but maybe to get about the business of answering these questions and reporting the results up the chain to the leader who was bitten by the original bee.

  • Why is it a Collective Bargaining Issue?
  • How Broad is the Concern?
  • Where in the Organization is the Issue Coming From?
  • What Would an Agreement Address?
  • What are the Specific Desired Outcomes?
  • What Specific Goals are Envisioned?
  • What Problem(s) is Expected to be Solved or Ameliorated?
  • Is a Labor Agreement the Best Way to Approach it?
  • What’s to Gain or Lose by Involving our Friends on the Other Side of the Table?

Interests the Lawyers Will Worry About

From a union perspective on folks to keep away from a bargaining table, lawyers rank right up there with labor relations specialists. The interests they will most likely press involve answers to these questions:

  • Is there a Law or Government-wide Regulation Involved?
  • Is there an Agency-Wide or Primary National Subdivision Requirement Involved?
  • Is there an Agency Policy Involved?
  • To What Degree Does the Matter Involve the Conditions of Employment of Unit Employees?
  • Are There Any Specific Labor Law Constraints? You know, little things like management’s rights. (5 USC 7106(a) or (b)(1))

Interests More Specific to the Issue

So you get through those above and the matter survives unscathed. No problem right? Not yet. Each of the following, at a minimum, comes into consideration.

  • Costs (Direct or Indirect)
  • Strength of Demonstrated Need
  • Comparability with other Agreements
  • Administrative Problems
  • Overall Organizational Effect
  • Effect on Work Assignment, Work Flow or other Operational Consideration
  • Effect on Productivity
  • Effect on Customer Service
  • Effect on Supervision
  • Effect on Morale
  • Overall Benefit
  • Creation of Rights and Responsibilities

Now You’re Ready

I realized when I went to work for the government and in management, of all things, exactly how easy I had it as a union negotiator. I remember the discussion on the union side about whether to put an issue on the table or not. The only criteria I recall being applied were whether employees would like it and whether it would help the union. All other considerations were secondary.

To borrow from Yogi Berra, representing the Agency simply ain’t simple. The may be no more complex enterprise than successfully running a Federal Agency. The unions add another layer to that complexity. As I hope you’ve seen from the above, while it would certainly be more fun and less stressful to give them exactly what they want, it simply ain’t always possible.

A fellow named John Maxwell may have said it best: Three reasons problems are inevitable; first, we live in a world of growing complexity and diversity; second, we interact with people; and third, we cannot control all the situation we face.

As always, any opinion you find 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.