National Labor Council’s First Meeting: AFGE Bashes HR and LR Staffs

AFGE took the opportunity to of the National Council on Labor Management Relations to try to keep HR and LR staffs away from participating in prospective Agency Forums. The Author gives a rundown on the meeting and the information provided.

The first meeting of the National Council on Labor-Management Relations was held on Friday, February 26, 2010. The Council is a creation of Executive Order The Council announced a website  and issued an agenda for its first meeting.

In a last minute move (allegedly 11 minutes before the meeting), President Obama announced the member organizations. They are:

  • OPM (co-chair) Office of Personnel Management
  • OMB (co-chair) Office of Management and Budget
  • FLRA Federal Labor Relations Authority
  • DoD Department of Defense
  • Veterans Administration
  • Treasury
  • Homeland Security
  • Department of Labor
  • Senior Executive Association
  • Federal Managers Association
  • AFGE American Federation of Government Employees AFLCIO
  • NTEU National Treasury Employees Union Unaffiliated
  • NAGE National Association of Government Employees Subordinate to SEIU
  • NFFE National Federation of Federal Employees Subordinate to IAM (Machinists)
  • Teamsters Unaffiliated
  • IFPTE International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers AFLCIO
  • Federal Education Association Affiliated with National Education Association

The following comes from the notes of an attendee that I was provided. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in my use of these and for liberties taken in their recounting.

Opening Discussion

OMB’s Jeff Zients said that it was important for the parties to work well together to be more efficient. He recognizes that there are strong labor-management relationships within the government, but that we need to expand those positive relationships government-wide. These positive labor-management relationships help achieve performance improvements.

OPM got the meeting off with an agenda to be spent addressing principles to guide the group’s efforts and metrics. Director Berry provided a “white paper” that he claimed was a good historical document and a good draft of principles. After reading this, some may disagree with Director Berry’s assessment. I’ll get to that in a subsequent article.

Berry then went over slides addressing the Council’s purpose and metrics required by the order.

Discussion of Guiding Principles

The guiding principles in the briefing charts came from the attached white paper.  Some were quickly agreed on, others stirred up some controversy.

Principle 1. Engagement should contribute positively to the performance of the agency.

Agreed as written

Principle 2. Engagement should promote the economic and workplace interests of employees and managers.

Agreed as written

Principle 3. Engagement should operate with a clear charter that grants the parties broad authority to address issues that fall outside the scope of bargaining.

The Senior Executives Association (SEA) questioned what “broad authority” this principle grants. The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) asked how this was framed from an employee’s perspective. It wanted to make sure this is interpreted very broadly. This principle is part of the pre-decisional involvement requirement. OPM asked if it would be better if the E.O. was quoted instead. NTEU didn’t want the word “address” taken out of the principle. OPM suggested to change “broad authority” to “develop solutions jointly” as provided in the EO. Agreement was reached.

Principle 4. Engagement should address issues in a pre-decisional manner wherever possible.

NTEU stated that it hoped the “whenever possible” is used very rarely. OMB asked if the principle should just quote the words of the EO. Use the language in section 3aii, first clause. “Engagement shall allow….”

Principle 5. Engagement teams should receive training in interest-based problem-solving and conflict resolution.

One Agency noted that this will take a lot of work to properly train everyone. Training should also cover the EO and guiding principles in addition to problem solving. SEA suggested there should be training on general partnership issues. NTEU agreed.  AFGE noted that “interest based” training is a loaded term. Some are good, others not. AFGE is leery about what interest based means. OPM said the language comes out of the report. If everyone wants, they can drop “interest based” and put, “tools and processes that can assist parties in resolving disputes.”

Principle 6. Engagement teams should use skilled facilitators at appropriate times.

NTEU noted that facilitators were critical in certain situations.

Principle 7. Engagement teams should set goals, measure performance, and communicate results.

Agreed as written.

Principle 8. Managers and union representatives at all levels, especially high-ranking, should be committed to making engagement work, which means being personally engaged;

All expressed committed to making engagement work. National Association of Government Employees (NAGE) suggested taking out “high ranking” as everyone should be involved. Teamsters said the key is active leadership.

Principle 9. A cooperative approach to collective bargaining should be taken wherever possible so that adversarial relations at the negotiating table do not jeopardize the larger engagement process.

SEA asked what this is trying to fix. OPM noted that it says that we should be as cooperative as possible. The National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) stated the point is that we engage each other daily in grievances and other representation matters, but we need to set that aside so as not to affect overall relationship of working together. AFGE was fine without the entire sentence. NAGE agreed it could be stricken. OPM asked what would be put in its place if stricken. NTEU suggested that to make it positive, stop after the first line, after “possible”. The Council agreed to language that was suggested by OPM, “In the spirit of the larger engagement process, a cooperative approach to labor-management relations should be taken.”

Principle 10. Engagement teams should include middle managers and labor relations specialists with the understanding that the role of the latter is not to obstruct but rather to contribute to the cooperative conduct of all forums of labor-management interaction.

AFGE argued that these councils/forums should not be delegated to HR or labor relations specialists. It needs to be operated by managers. Operations managers need to be at the table, not HR crew. If it is the HR crew, AFGE will not participate. OPM said that maybe we don’t need this principle as it is already covered in the EO. The Veterans Administration (VA) suggested cutting out any negative language.

Homeland Security agreed that this is principally a line execution matter, not an HR one. OPM suggested putting in that engagement should be a line function. VA noted that it doesn’t want to exclude HR/LR from the forums.

OPM suggested identifying operational line managers, union reps, middle managers and LR specialists. AFGE said that LR specialists create major obstructions and they don’t want them in the forum. AFGE wants obstruction language in the principle. NTEU doesn’t want LRs to be specifically identified as participating but parties can identify who they want, to include HR/LR. This discussion went on for some time with AFGE seeking to exclude LR/HR from the forums. OMB doesn’t like “support” but is okay with “support staff” in identifying HR/LR. NFFE said that the problems of the past were that HR staff would be at the table and they could not make decisions. We need decision makers at the table. Treasury recommended including line staff but not excluding HR/LR. The parties agreed to “Engagement team should be led by relevant decision makers and supported by appropriate staff.”

OPM asked if any principles were missing. SEA noted that resources weren’t mentioned. (That will be added later.) NTEU wanted the word “engagement” changed to “labor and management” where appropriate.

VA noted that there should be multi-tiered forums at all levels. OPM and OMB said that they should just quote the EO with regard to where forums should be established.

Consensus was reached on the principles (though one is still open to some modification at the next meeting and more can be added. The Council then looked at the metrics on the briefing slides.

Discussion of Metrics

AFGE said it thought it was hard to put metrics in without the initiatives identified. AFGE was adamant that grievance/ULP tracking should not be included as a metric. There is no correlation between grievances and the success of forums. Forums are not grievance or dispute resolution bodies. Teamsters said that the climate is what should be looked at. The discussion stated a need for a qualitative aspect to review LR atmosphere. Maybe costs, e.g., backpay awards, could be a factor. In looking at morale, need to look at everyone, not just employees. OPM said we need to look at accomplishing core mission. OPM offered dropping grievances and instead looking at a goal of improving the climate. AFGE was not sure how to measure that. Need detailed project to look at how to measure this, probably through a survey. NTEU noted that where partnership worked in the past, there were fewer grievances as it is an indicator, even if there is not a direct correlation.

The Department of Labor said that in a healthy relationship, the parties don’t rely on rights. Over time, as the relationship improves, resolutions of problems occur in negotiations or in problem solving mechanisms. We can look to see if a relationship is a problem solving partnership. AFGE disagreed saying you can’t bring grievances to the forum. There is a false expectation that grievances will plummet. The Council should not address grievances, so why count them? NFFE said a goal can be fewer third party proceedings – earlier resolution. OPM suggested tracking increased dispute resolution. SEA said we lose the fuller picture by not counting grievances/ULPs. NTEU suggested tracking them, but not having them as a metric. Department of Labor said parties could use the metric as a tool. For example, tracking the avoidance of arbitration and somehow holding the parties accountable and wants to count resolutions occurring prior to third parties. NAGE noted that the Council could be setting itself up for failure by counting grievances and ULPs. OPM asked if they should count increases in dispute resolution. Homeland Security believes the survey should cover LR and union officials and front line managers. Grievances ought to decrease as the relationships are improved. It was also suggested that a metric looking at public perception of the agency would be beneficial. VA wants to look at how well and quickly we make changes. This serves the American public. Do we get to new places/policies better, faster, cheaper. Look at the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission.

AFGE said it wanted to look at employee worklife. Look at jobs in the agency and development of employees, e.g., growth jobs, etc. OPM suggested that proposals on this metric be looked at during the next meeting.

Dates and Deadlines

OPM noted that the date for agencies and departments to submit their implementation plans was coming quickly and that there may be about 200 plans. That’s too many for the Council to individually consider. OPM can commit staff to review, but there is a need to create a working group of Council members to be available to answer questions from those reviewing the submissions. Labor organizations can detail staff to help the OPM staff review the submissions. The Working Group would look at what the OPM staff recommends and then present findings to the Council. OPM asked for volunteers for the working group. AFGE, NAGE, Homeland Security and VA volunteered. All Council members will be able to see all of the submissions.

AFGE raised concern that larger unions shouldn’t have equal representation on forums. AFGE is looking to have AFGE-only labor-management councils as they are the largest union. OPM said that problems can be brought to the Council and they will ensure the spirit of the EO is being met. They want to make this work across the government. DoD noted that AFGE’s concerns were based on operations of the forum and not compliance with the EO. OPM stated there is nothing in the EO addressing single union councils. DoD noted that the Council may have issues if one agency does it one way and another does it differently.

NTEU said that maybe the Council should measure how quickly forums are established and at what level in the agency.

5 U.S.C. §7106(B)(1) Pilot Programs

OPM said that activities/agencies can submit proposals to engage in a b1 pilot to the Council by March 9th. If there are sufficient proposals, then selections of pilots can be made from the group of volunteers. If insufficient volunteers, the two co-chairs can direct some more pilots be added to the mix.

The next meeting of the Council is tentatively scheduled for April 7th.

Some Thoughts

The unions wrote the executive order, union advocates wrote the white paper that was used to set guiding principles. Human Resources and Labor Relations advisors appear to be getting set up for another beating. It appears to this observer that OPM and OMB are letting the unions have their way in this process without much in the way of direction.

The central personnel and management agencies for the Federal government seem to be passing this buck off to the Agencies with real work to do to figure out, fund and make work with not much in the way of original thought, creativity or a considered comprehensive objective for long run success. Director Berry’s comments about the white paper, a patently slanted document, bring the words of George Bernard Shaw to mind, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

As always any opinions stated are my responsibility alone. I hope I haven’t skewed the notes I used and thanks to those who wrote them and sent them to me.

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.