What’s the Status of Your Labor Relations?

The new administration has brought about significant federal labor relations changes. How will agency bargaining agreements be impacted?

There has been a dramatic change in federal labor relations since the change in Administrations. The pendulum has swung from one approach which heavily favored management to a vastly different approach favoring unions. This has occurred almost overnight.

While the dust hasn’t fully settled, it is clear a new approach is coming to many agencies. Some agencies have already done “resets”.

The following are significant labor relations issues which affect the collective bargaining relationship of labor and management. I suggest that you look at each of these issues and decide if there are actions you should or could take, or questions which must be answered, to resolve outstanding labor relations concerns. 

1. Status of the Scope of the Bargaining Unit 

One thing certain about the federal government is that it will continually change and reorganize. As management changes, the new leadership frequently has different ideas about how the organization should be structured.

Congress may also decide that certain departments or agencies should be consolidated or merged with another. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) results are an example of the impact of Congressional action on the scope of bargaining units, as is the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. All of these changes can have a significant impact on the scope of bargaining units. 

If an agency is reorganized, one of the first questions which may arise is whether the existing bargaining units remain appropriate. The basic question is whether these employees still share a community of interest with the employees in the existing bargaining unit, or whether, as a result of the reorganization, they share a community of interest with employees in the new organization they are joining.

The question of community of interest is decided based upon how the unit employees interact with other employees and those common or shared working conditions policies that apply to them.

The next question often is whether the bargaining unit transferred to the new organization substantially intact, such that the new organization could be considered the successor to the previous organization that had a collective bargaining relationship with the employees’ exclusive representative. 

The scope of a bargaining unit determines whom the union represents and whether management has an obligation to bargain over changes in working conditions for certain employees. Bargaining units which are not properly aligned with the current structure of the organization can lead to difficulties for unions in representing the employees, as well as to problems for management in making changes in working conditions.

In my experience, when the parties get ready for bargaining over a new collective bargaining agreement, they often realize that the bargaining unit description in the agreement is no longer accurate. The parties cannot change the bargaining unit description by mutual agreement alone. A petition must be filed with the FLRA to update the description of the scope of the bargaining unit. Any time there are issues with the scope of the bargaining unit, either side should contact their FLRA Regional Office for assistance on what is necessary to obtain a decision on a new bargaining unit description.

2. Status of the Collective Bargaining Agreement

Your collective bargaining agreement has a significant impact on how labor and management engage in labor relations.

Collective bargaining agreements expire at the end of the term in the agreement, unless the parties agree to extend the agreement or the agreement “rolls over” (continues on for a term set forth in the agreement).

The terms contained in expired agreements continue on as past practices. Once an agreement has expired, either party to the agreement can seek to make changes in working conditions by giving notice to the other party and engaging in collective bargaining. They are no longer bound by the terms of the agreement themselves but only to the extent the terms created past practices. For purposes of the “covered by doctrine,” the terms of the agreement are treated as though they are still in effect until new terms are bargained. 

Any permissive subjects of bargaining contained in an expired agreement continue on until a party to the agreement notifies the other party that it no longer wishes to be bound by the contract clauses which concern permissive subjects. This must be a formal notification. 

If a contract has expired, another union has the right to file a petition to seek to represent the employees currently in the bargaining unit unless precluded from doing so by the national constitution of the union. A collective bargaining agreement that is currently in effect prevents another union from filing such a petition. 

If the contract is about to expire, it is important to read the duration article in the contract to determine when to notify the other party that you wish to renegotiate the contract. Missing the deadline in the contract will, in many cases, cause the contract automatically to roll over for another year. If the contract has expired, in most cases the party wishing to reopen the contract must simply notify the other party to the contract of their de-sire to negotiate a new contract. 

An updated contract is important for both parties to the relationship. The contract represents an agreement between labor and management on the working conditions of employees in the bargaining unit. An outdated agreement may result in old practices remaining in effect, which could jeopardize the effectiveness and efficiency of the agency, as well as the union’s ability to properly represent the employees in its bargaining unit.

3. Status of Knowledge of the Rights and Obligations of Unions, Employees and Management in Federal Sector Labor Relations 

The Statute establishes the rights of labor, management and employees in a unionized environment in the federal sector. The Statute establishes the boundaries to the relationship between labor and management and sets forth both rights and obligations that union and management must observe in dealing with each other. It also establishes the rights employees have been given under the law which must be observed by both union and management.

If managers and union representatives don’t understand these boundaries, they may make mistakes which end in litigation or seriously damage the trust in their relationship. A working knowledge of the Statute and labor relations processes can greatly assist the parties in establishing a productive labor management relationship and avoiding time consuming, expensive litigation as well as protect the rights of employees.

In a previous article, I proposed a short quiz on collective bargaining. How many of your union reps and managers can pass this quiz?

4. The Status of the Relationship between Labor and Management  

Labor relations is both understanding and obeying the Statute and maintaining an effective relationship be-tween union and management. It cannot be overstated how important the relationship between the union and management is to the successful conduct of labor relations. The personalities of union leaders and management representatives have a major impact on how labor relations is conducted at a facility.

Effective labor relations are not achieved solely by being knowledgeable about how to enforce your rights under the law, but also by knowing how to work effectively with the other side to the relationship. An effective working relationship can help the parties work through difficult and complex issues which otherwise could lead to acrimonious litigation and endless strife. 

A relationship based on trust and open communication is invaluable. It allows the parties to engage in good faith negotiations, which will almost invariably lead to better, more effective results for both parties to the negotiation.

Over the past four years, many labor management relationships underwent considerable strain. To build a better relationship, the parties may need to agree to undergo relationship building approaches which work to mend and improve their relationship. 

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.