Labor Partnerships Specter Raised Again in Congress

A new bill seeks to re-establish labor-management partnerships in the federal government. How likely is it to work this time given its past track record?

Federal employee unions like the idea of labor-management councils and partnerships. President Clinton set up partnerships between agencies and unions. President Obama followed his lead and set up a National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations (Council) by issuing Executive Order 13522 in December 2009.

One of the primary objectives of the Obama Executive Order was to expand the number of topics (“permissive” topics) on which federal employee unions can bargain without having to change the federal labor relations statute.

President Trump revoked the Obama Executive Order in September 2017.

Elijah Cummings is a Democrat and Congressman from Maryland. He is the Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform. He has (again) introduced legislation to “reinstate advisory panels that promote dialogue and foster partnerships between labor and federal agency management.” The legislation would create a national council on labor-management relations.

Past attempts to pass this legislation were not successful. The latest bill has been endorsed by a number of federal employee unions, so Congressman Cummings gets a pat on the back from these organizations for representing their interests.

President Trump had this comment about federal labor-management partnerships when revoking the Obama Executive Order on this subject:

The United States Government should spend tax dollars responsibly, efficiently, and in the public interest. The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations (Council) and related agency-level labor-management forums have consumed considerable managerial time and taxpayer resources, but they have not fulfilled their goal of promoting collaboration in the Federal workforce. Public expenditures on the Council and related forums have produced few benefits to the public, and they should, therefore, be discontinued.

It is possible the latest attempt at partnership councils will be reported out of committee and get a vote in the House. It seems unlikely it would pass in the Senate and also unlikely it would not receive a presidential veto.

Past Results of Partnership Attempts

Cummings cites as examples of the success of these efforts, optimized telework policies in Commerce, the Patent Office reducing a backlog of patent applications, and improving work performance of the Financial Management Service.

The relative “success” of these councils during the Obama administration is mixed, at best. A 177 page report was issued. According to labor relations expert and FedSmith author Bob Gilson, “The report, all 177 pages of it, manages to capture a bunch of activity and almost no results.”

He also notes that in the report to the president, it was not signed by senior officials but by the “acting deputy director in OMB with virtually no Agency experience and OPM’s General Counsel, recently a top Federal union lawyer, to sign it, date it and send it to the president. Second stringers on a memo to the president? What’s that about?”

President Trump apparently has a view similar to that outlined in the Gilson article.


The Cummings bill is unlikely to advance very far in Congress. Introducing the bill shows support for the unions who support his re-election efforts and probably preserves the idea that these councils should be re-established under the next Democrat who is elected to serve in the White House.

The councils did not provide significant positive results under the Obama administration, but they did give unions a role in agency management and probably did expand bargaining opportunities for unions without new legislation in some agencies.

As often happens in any administration, legislation is often introduced for political purposes. Whether it accomplishes anything else is often secondary.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47