Labor Relations as a Contact Sport

If you participate in a contact sport, you have to understand the rules and how to play the game. The author says this applies to labor relations as well.

The practice of labor relations is a contact sport. The participants are constantly interacting in numerous ways. It can be a sport dominated by combatants or by problem solvers. In my experience of over 30 years as a federal labor relations practitioner, I have met my share of combatants and problem solvers. 

The two sides are subject to the same system of labor relations; however, they often interpret their respective rights very differently.

I often speak of rights and obligations when speaking about federal labor relations rights because they form the boundaries of the labor management relationship. Both union and management need to know what their rights are if they are to be successful in ensuring that their interests are protected. I believe that fully understanding your rights leads more often to cooperative labor relations than to a contentious relationship because there are no illusions as to what you can and cannot do in dealing with each other.

The Federal Service Labor Management Relations Statute, (Statute) provides a framework for how labor relations are conducted. It governs the relationship between labor and management and establishes the mechanisms for resolving disputes. Unfortunately, the system it establishes is extraordinarily complex, particularly regarding collective bargaining. 

It is impossible to know and understand all the intricacies of this complex system, but managers and union representatives must have a basic understanding of what they need to know to be conversant, and hopefully effective, in labor relations.

Labor relations in the federal sector is based on rights and obligations given to management, unions, and employees in the Statute. It is also how people deal with people in a labor relations environment. It consists of both labor law, which governs the exercise of rights and obligations, and labor relations, which is people interacting with people in the labor relations arena. Labor law consists of both the Statute itself and the decisions issued by the Federal Labor Relations Authority and federal courts interpreting the Statute. To be successful in a unionized environment, a supervisor and manager in the federal government must know what management’s, employees’ and unions’ rights and obligations are under the Statute and the decisions interpreting them. 

They must also know how to deal with union representatives and employees when a union is present in the workplace. For the same reason, union representatives must also know their rights and obligations under the law and how to have effective dealings with management. Effective labor relations are based on both sides to the labor relationship knowing their rights and obligations and how to deal with each other in the labor relations environment.

The concepts in federal labor relations deal with complex legal terminology and difficult theories of what is permissible (or not) under the law. You do not have to be a lawyer to understand what you need to know about federal labor relations (there are already plenty of them in the federal government), but you must have a working knowledge of how labor relations works and how they can deal effectively with each other.

The aim of federal sector labor relations: “to make a more efficient and effective government.” The most significant question for a manager is “What do I need to know to be successful in dealing with the union?” How can a manager use labor relations to make a more effective and efficient government which should be a manager’s aim with or without a union? For the same reason, a union representative should be thinking how to accomplish the same thing.

The hard part about labor relations is to get both the manager and representative to understand that working together can be the best approach to making a more effective and efficient government. Knowing the law and knowing how to deal with people is the best way to start. If you participate in a contact sport, the best way to begin is to understand the rules and how play the game.

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 or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.