I recently presented a two days labor relations seminar to a group of National Guard supervisors, managers, HR folks, and union representatives. We spent half the time on some basic labor relations (LR). The other half was spent reviewing the interest-based negotiating concepts they have been using for more than a quarter century. Perhaps it was the effect of a long hiatus from work due to the pandemic, but the two days in Oregon tapped into a well of nostalgia and optimism.
Oregon’s longstanding partnership began in the mid-1990s. It has sustained itself and achieved a pattern of cooperative practices thought radical at the time of its inception. I am fortunate to have been part of their unconventional arrangement from the beginning. Their way of doing the work of LR is worth considering once again as administrations and their pro/anti-union Executive Orders continue to whipsaw union-management relations and relationships.
In the beginning…
My first experience teaching to joint union-management audiences began under the tutelage of the late Dennis Reischl and this site’s founder, Ralph Smith. Dennis and Ralph had landed part of a contract to teach the LR portion of a seminar titled “Partners in Problem Solving”.
It was designed for FAA managers and a new union, NATCA – the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. At that time, NATCA had just arisen from the ashes of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) following a disastrous strike and PATCO’s decertification. We were on a large team presenting those classes across the country. All included both union and management. To my knowledge, they were the first joint LR trainings in the federal sector.
Then, as now, elected union officers and appointed representatives were trained by their national unions while most management representatives received agency training. These separate classes focused on the same law, however, the experiences were partisan and polarizing by their very design. Dennis and Ralph were moving their young business into a potentially volatile situation where adversaries learned side by side.
Oregon gets started
Around that time, I was learning about interest-based bargaining (IBB) for the first time, but didn’t feel qualified to teach it. Negotiating for the Navy had been competitive and laden with tactics. The new “touchy-feely” ideas captured in the seminal book titled Getting to Yes seemed antithetical to everything I had been taught and had deployed as a shipyard Labor Relations Specialist (LRS).
A few years later, and newly in business for myself, I accepted an offer to teach “partnership” and IBB to the Oregon Guard and its AFGE Local 2986. Their exploration of a cooperative venture stemmed from a series of coincidences. A former LRS had become the state’s head of human resources and was also a respected Colonel in the Guard. His hand-picked successor was serving as the local union president at the time of selection. The Adjutant General for Oregon was both open to new ideas and a superb leader. Lastly, the Clinton administration had issued an Executive Order promoting partnership and IBB.
I was intrigued by the possibility positive (rather than adversarial) union-management relationships. So, early in my career as a sole proprietor, I designed a class covering the basics of partnership and IBB. After that, it would be the Oregonians’ course to chart.
The National Guard Bureau, was uninterested in both the Clinton Executive Order and the softer approach it was promulgating. The nearby district office of AFGE was no more encouraging. The adversarial system was familiar to both and Feds aren’t known for taking untested risks.
Paddling against the current, the Oregonians drafted a partnership charter that was signed by both the Adjutant General and the local union president and the experiment was underway. Early classes and meetings were perilous at times. The Labor Relations Specialist was still trying to run the union he once led and mistrust arose on both sides. Over time, however, sober and thoughtful voices propelled partnership forward.
The process becomes familiar
Over the course of more than two decades, meetings and negotiations have settled into a pattern. The ground rules and operating procedures remain constant and are mostly focused on civility and cooperation. The players change, new leadership emerges, and potential new participants are invited to attend as observers to prepare them for eventual seats on the partnership council. Despite a legal requirement to wear military uniforms while at work, the parties agreed long ago to civilian attire at meetings so rank differences would not be visible.
The parties now meet about 3 times/year. The LRS makes most of the arrangements and the location varies due to the long distances between Guard components in the Oregon. An agenda is composed by the chief negotiators and the LRS. Following my recent seminar, agenda items included water quality issues at one facility and (of course) the vaccination mandate.
With the class completed, I was packing up my belongings and watching the room being rearranged for a partnership meeting the next morning. Participants sit in a horseshoe facing a screen, a flip chart and their facilitator. Management and union officials sit so that each negotiator is flanked by someone from the other side. “Parking lot” meetings (caucuses) are prohibited.
Each issue before them is fleshed out in terms of its history, the reason it’s on the agenda, and its importance to each side. Subject matter experts often provide details for the negotiators. Trust is placed in a skilled neutral facilitator who ensures everyone has the opportunity to speak about their interests (what matters to them) rather than proposals or positions that would invite counter-offers and haggling.
Instead of moving from discussion to a solution, the facilitator initiates brainstorming sessions where possible ideas for addressing the issues are solicited. Ideas may be partisan, creative, simple, complex, practical, and/or unworkable. Everyone participates. Eventually, the generated options are evaluated by the group and the best plan is agreed upon by consensus. Then a union-management pair of observers is asked to draft language the teams will later massage into final form and sign.
A different culture emerges
Over the years, mistrust and contentious personalities left me wondering if this arrangement would last. The commitment to keep at it has prevailed again and again. Throughout my involvement, a staff member with experience as a union representative has been on the HR staff. That familiarity with “both sides of the street” is invaluable to the group’s success.
During the recent seminar, I described some of the experiences I had during my time as a chief spokesperson for Navy negotiating teams – the tactics, the psychological wear-and-tear, the struggles over proposals and counterproposals, etc. While the Oregonians appreciate the war stories, they don’t easily relate. They’ve been in an agreeable relationship so long that no one remembers “the bad old days”.
The cost of bargaining could be a bargain
The Oregon Guard continues to invest in these offsite gatherings and joint trainings. The belief from the start has been that the time and money expended is considered far less than those associated with arguments over ground rules, protracted negotiations, unfair labor practice charges (ULPs), and hours of “official time” that are byproducts of adversarial relationships.
As readers already know, Feds can’t bargain over primary issues like wages, health care, and retirement. Moreover, federal management has unilateral rights the private sector envies. Perhaps because of this, management and union representatives often get bogged down arguing secondary and even trivial issues.
Most union locals and agency management still remain uninterested in partnership and IBB. There are many reasons for this – most having to do with personalities, control issues, and inertia. Adversarial labor relations are familiar. I came of age in that arrangement and enjoyed the gamesmanship between labor and management at a large shipyard. Eventually, however, I found myself ready for something different.
Readers who have negotiated “across the table” for months on end understand the frustrations of traditional bargaining. Those with less competitive natures may be ready for a different approach. Should the weary be curious about the arrangement that Oregonians have been nourishing for the better part of 3 decades, you might ask to peek into their tent as they take care of business differently. Just remember to bring your union or management counterpart(s) with you.