Renewed Call for Partnership: Will It Result in an Old Horse Beating or a New Opportunity?

Federal unions and some congressmen are asking for an executive order reestablishing the partnerships of the Clinton 90s. The author asks if we’d be better served by a stakeholder discussion before leaping into a repeat of a program that had very limited results.

I did something today I do not normally do.

Having seen the elephant and how he or she generally operates, I figure that our country’s leaders and legislators have an agenda and are rarely swayed by messages from the citizenry particularly on a politically complicated matter involving the internal operations of government. I sent our President a message today on the White House website. It reads as follows:

The President has been asked by members of Congress to renew a prior (Clinton) Executive Order dealing with Federal Labor Management Partnerships between Agencies and the unions representing employees.  As a move toward enhanced transparency and good government, please consider a public discussion between the stakeholders to the Federal labor relations law as a way to help determine how best to proceed.  The Clinton Order led to much litigation and did not prove viable in the long run.  Career managers and the lawyers and labor relations staffs responsible for representing Agencies in dealings with the union should have an opportunity to share their experience and practical concerns along with the unions and Administration policy makers to achieve a workable program.

I’m pretty sure that between Iraq, Iran, N. Korea, the Economy and health care, the President has a pretty full plate.  I am not sure what attention a labor management partnership executive order will get in the light of other weightier affairs. Perhaps a political nod to the unions who supported him is in order and will be what we’ll get.  

There is another choice. 

When the current Federal labor law was under consideration, the government’s central personnel agency at the time, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, reached out to Agencies as well as unions to hear comments and concerns.  It listened to a number of the stakeholders on both sides in drafting a proposed statute.  Despite whining from some (including yours truly), the Federal labor law has served its overall purpose remarkably well. 

Since labor and management have both complained about it vociferously, perhaps that is its best sign of success. If it’s time to rethink how labor and management operate sufficiently to warrant an Executive Order, it’s likely also time to do it right.  Right, in my view, is with an opportunity for all who play to get a say.

To Get it Right, Some Key Questions must be Answered

There is one union representative running around DC telling anyone who will listen that he has penned the upcoming Obama executive order.  Despite what some union folks want to portray, labor relations already has a big impact on Agency mission and operations.  Career management must juggle a number of special interest programs, complicated leave policies (e.g., FMLA), employee benefits such as telework and flexible schedules as well as union contract in getting the rubber to the road.  As a result, labor relations from an Agency prospective has too often been another thing to react to and not one to manage in a rational way.

So, if the Obama Administration decides to substantially address Federal labor relations, labor relations stakeholders should get a chance to answer questions such as these before an executive order, drafted by a single stakeholder, is adopted as politically expedient.

  1. What are the substantial problems an executive order is expected to address?
  2. What is the expected relationship between the law and the order?
  3. What is the role the neutral agencies (e.g., Federal Labor Relations Authority, FLRA General Counsel, Federal Service Impasses Panel, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service) will be expected to play?
  4. What is a "good" labor management relationship"?
  5. What role, other than that specified in law, may or should be accorded to unions representing the workforce under a prospective order?

Under the theory that "if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there", wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at the program critically from all sides before we descend into Clinton-like happy talk with no or poor results?

As always, the opinions expressed above do not reflect anyone but the author.

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.