The Obama Partnership Executive Order: Where is It?

It’s been over 100 days since the inauguration of the President. There’s a lot of speculation in Federal labor relations circles about the status of the allegedly impending executive order reinstituting partnership. The author asks about the transparency of the process and suggests some possible holdups.

The Federal labor relations buzz these days asks the question, where is the highly touted (by some unions) executive order rekindling the flames of partnership doused in a cold water bath by the evil (dare we even say his name) George Bush?

Of course, feeding the flames is the fact that it took the former president less than a month to rescind the Clinton order while the union’s great hope, Barack Obama, hasn’t acted in almost three months. 

One could argue, I guess, that the President may have had a thing or two on his mind more pressing than meeting the expectations of the Federal union community.

Also, don’t forget that the last savior of the downtrodden Federal employee, Bill Clinton, was inaugurated on January 20, 1993 but didn’t sign his order until October 1, 1993.

Maybe There’s No Rush at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
There is a possible theory about Obama and Federal unions that may have some validity.
Remember that our President is very close to Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU served as his advance force and funded his campaign in the beginning and until he got traction and money.
Stern, as you should know, led a secession from the passé thinking of the old white guys who dominated the AFL-CIO a few years ago.  I’m sure Stern (whose union owns a federal union, NAGE) is acutely aware of the dynamics of Federal unionism in which dues are unimportant to many union leaders who wouldn’t survive if the workforce was a union shop.  
Actual dues collected reflect this in most recognitions. Our current batch of union leaders who hold Federal jobs rely on official time and agency provided services for bread, butter and a soft job.  Dues are merely jam–nice but not necessary to them. This appears to be the antithesis of Andy Stern unionism which is based on all out organizing of minority, ethnic, low skilled, low educated and low paid workers.  
SEIU is full of hungry people, all of whom vote and all of whom turned out the vote for our President.  I would bet a sizeable sum that the average salary of Federal union members is two or maybe three times that of those represented by SEIU.  So maybe the attitude in the White House is, "we’ll get to it with all due, deliberate speed."
Maybe an Executive Order Awaits the Selection of Key Jobs
There’s no General Counsel, not a single member of the Impasses Panel and FLRA has a Republican and a Democrat who may disagree if they choose in the absence of a third vote.  The Administration may be waiting to do a Federal labor relations day in which everything intended is revealed at once.  Now there’s an insular view of the world.
Did the Union Proposals for an Executive Order Scare the White House Lawyers?
Rumor has it that between the top two Federal unions were proposals that called for bargaining over reserved management rights (5 U.S.C. 7106 (A)), stringent FLRA enforcement of the permissive area, and some kind of mandated high level obligation to engage in partnership (read pre-decisional involvement of the unions).
That’s not a typo in the first line. 
Some who have seen one or the other of the unions’ proposed orders but don’t want to be quoted say that the idea of bargaining mission, budget, organization, assignment of work and the like have raised some serious concerns among the various White House Counsel. 
Also, a consideration would be the authority of an executive order to mandate any action by the allegedly neutral FLRA.  In addition, the actions of this President to date haven’t supported the notion of his unleashing 800 pound gorillas to enforce his efforts.  His style appears to be collaborative and that style that has gotten him heat from even his own party.  So will he dictate to his Agency heads that they must meet and treat as equals unions that demonstrate a lot of old think in a new century?  You decide.
What Can the President Give that Won’t Hobble His Administration?
Let’s assume that only a fool would order bargaining on reserved management rights.  Our President is certainly not a fool.  If President Obama really wants to cut programs to free up cash to work his agenda, wouldn’t encouraging and enforcing broad permissive area negotiations be counterproductive?  
The untrumpeted fact is that bargaining on the numbers, types and grades of employees assigned to an organizational subdivision (the essential permissive topic) would so hamper the administration’s stated desire to cut unnecessary programs as to effectively gut the effort.
An executive order that encourages collaboration, establishes standing cooperative efforts at the top levels coupled with a limited administration-backed legislative update throwing a bone or two is certainly imaginable.  Maybe Andy Stern will draft it, giving unions clout in proportion to membership.  Wouldn’t that be fun?
There’s not a lot of transparency so far in the development of an order.  Maybe no one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. cares enough.  But if an Executive Order issues without the input from your Agency representatives who must bargain with the unions then shame on you, Mr. President.
Finally, the President must know that the Federal employee vote cannot be delivered by the unions and so the question becomes why cater to them?  This President has been impressive so far with his careful moves and amazingly effective PR.  
He owns the media right now.  I think he’ll throw Federal unions a bone to keep them from growling but I’m not as sure as I was in October that there’ll be much meat on it.


As always, these opinions are 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.