Military Managers and Federal Unions: Ten Things to Keep in Mind

If you’re a military manager dealing with employees represented by a union, the minefields are common and not always where you think they are. The author suggests ten things to do or know that can keep your foot off the pressure plate. Military managers should read this and their advisors should forward them a copy.

So you’re a military manager responsible for supervising Federal civil service employees directly or indirectly.  Let’s assume these employees are represented by a Federal sector union. This article will take you through the top ten concepts to consider in any dealings you have with these union representatives.

#1. Find out the name, phone and email of your command’s labor relations advisor and get a briefing on the labor management environment.

If you have a unionized Federal workforce, you will have a servicing Human resources specialist or labor relations specialist.  Ask for a briefing.  If you’ve never dealt with a union before get training designed specifically for managers.

#2.  Get a copy of the labor agreement and read it.

Take the time to read through the labor agreement and make notes on the questions you have.  Send your questions to your servicing Human resources specialist or labor relations specialist and ask for answers.

#3.  Remember that there are virtually no similarities between Federal and private sector labor Relations.

Lots of military managers take graduate courses that include private sector labor relations. You Let’s give you a quick look at differences. Almost no Feds bargain pay and fringes (there are some exceptions); it’s a crime to strike Uncle Sam; membership is totally voluntary; and, Federal unions bargain official time and can bargain other union perks so often have little interest in membership. Like the movie says, “it’s complicated”.

#4.  Understand that power in Federal sector unions is not in membership but in legal enforcement of statutory rights.

Federal agencies such as the Federal Labor Relations Authority and Impasses Panel often decide what unions can negotiate about and get.  As a result, litigation is common and labor relations frequently rights v. relationship based.

#5.   Recognize that the more senior you are, the more caution you should employ when granting direct access to a union.

Federal union representatives like to advance the idea that they are management’s equal and often seek to bypass the chain of command to deal with senior officers directly.  Federal labor case law holds that the parties at a bargaining table or involved in dispute resolution are on an equal basis.  Give a lot of thought to holding direct meetings other than brief introductions.  You have subordinate advisors and managers to do this.  Your command likely has a named “chief negotiator” who sometimes is charged with delivering either bad news or saying no to union demands.  Bypass this person at your own risk.

#6.  Making changes in command operations may produce a bargaining obligation, act accordingly.

Involve your human resource and labor relations advisors when considering organizational; mission or work changes.  The most commonly won unfair labor practice by a union is that management changed working conditions without proper notice or negotiation.  You will come to realize that change in a unionized environment must be a carefully planned and staffed out decision process.

#7.  Don’t casually meet with or agree with the union or assume you understand the union’s interests; get advice early and often.

There are meetings the union has a right to attend including investigative meetings when the employee requests a representative; “formal discussions” with employees where working conditions are on the agenda; and meetings involving grievances.  The union has a right to attend the last two whether an involved employee wants them there or not.  Go over your agenda or meeting objectives with your advisor in advance to avoid problems.

#8.  Identify the roles and relationships your human resources office and your lawyers have and hear them out on issues.

Agency counsel is more commonly involved when the kind of case involves a hearing.  Human resources staff are usually involved in day to day issues such as advising managers and handling negotiations.  Generally, the more complex or adversary relations with the union are, the more Agency lawyers and HR staff roles converge.

#9.  You may be asked to decide a grievance, an unfair labor practice position or what concessions to make in a negotiation.  Staff the decision and get input from the stakeholders.

The more senior you are, the more likely you will be responsible for decision making.  I like the model that asks:

  1. What’s the problem/issue?
  2. What are the relevant facts?
  3. What do the various interested parties want?
  4. What’s the applicable law, regulation, policy, contract or applicable case decision say?
  5. What are you recommending I decide?
  6. Why should I follow your recommendation?

#10.  A lot of people think they are negotiators or can get along where others cannot.  Don’t fall into this trap.

Everybody’s smart; everybody wants something; everybody is primarily self-interested; issues are often complex; government issues are always more complicated; military issues are even more complicated than that.  Don’t be the manager that doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know.  Listen to experience; ask for proof or a case to read for yourself; you have a team supporting you, work with it.

As always, any opinion you discern herein is my sole responsibility.

I know I haven’t written much this summer but have been traveling a lot for both business and fun.  Two weeks ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I have decided that communism is unlikely to make a comeback as every Russian teenager is indistinguishable from any American teenager; there’s a McDonalds on every fifth corner; and the St. Petersburg police drive Fords.  I was told that the Russian auto industry makes a car called a Lada but nobody will drive it since it’s junk.  I took on the project of looking for Ladas and saw two in the three days I was there.  Toyota and Fiat are the common man’s car but I saw the very first Corvette in Russia that I had ever seen in Europe despite a number of visits.  The trip took us to the former East Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Russia.

Fairly recent history is very real to everyone in these countries.  Even in the short time we were there it was obvious that America is not the bad guy in these people’s minds that some would have us believe.

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.