Trust issues raised at first meeting of labor-management council

At the first meeting of a new national council on federal labor-management relations on Friday, participants debated how agencies should structure collaborative projects, and how to measure improvements in federal labor relations.

Under an executive order signed by President Obama in December, agencies must create their own forums for labor-management collaboration. They are required to submit plans for those forums by March 9, and the national council must approve them.

During the meeting, labor and management representatives clashed over the role labor relations and human resources specialists should play in agency-by-agency engagement efforts. Some union leaders argued they could not trust labor relations officers, and that higher-level officials must be involved.

"A lot of our people are gun-shy, and there's been major obstruction from labor relations in a lot of agencies over the last few years," said American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage. "If there's a management team that's HR and labor relations, we're not going to play."

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said "we've had some very negative experiences in the past where agencies do not send their decision-makers to the table."

But Scott Gould, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs and Jane Lute, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, argued that it was important that labor relations and human resources officers not be excluded from engagement efforts. The council settled on a statement of principles that would require agencies to bring decision-makers to the table as well as any support staff they might need.

Council members also debated how to measure the success of new engagement efforts. Gage said he thought individual programs in each agency should have their own metrics. DHS' Lute said it was important for agencies to do baseline surveys of issues such as employee morale and engagement, so they would be able to measure the impact of the partnerships accurately.

Union representatives objected to the idea that the number of grievances, unfair labor practices complaints and lawsuits filed by employees should be used to measure the success or failure of agency-level engagement efforts. Gage said the forums would largely be concerned with issues other than the treatment of individual employees, and that because the forums were not an alternative dispute resolution tool, they shouldn't be judged on grievance numbers.

"If employees are being charged [absent without leave] or being denied promotions, that should not be a metric to say …that we are not being successful," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

But Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said grievance numbers matter. Even if productivity and morale improves, "no one is going to give a damn if there are twice as many grievances," she said. "I think it's just wrong to say we're not going to look at the data."

The council eventually agreed that it would be better to focus measurements on improvements in rates of dispute resolution.

Despite areas of disagreement raised at the meeting, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, who co-chairs the council with federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients, praised council members' efforts. "The respectful dialogue at this table is heartening and encouraging," Berry said.

Council members also agreed on a mechanism to select participants in a pilot program to test allowing agencies and unions to bargain over issues that are not ordinarily subject to negotiation in the federal sector, such as the number and kinds of employees assigned to projects. The national council will determine whether there are enough proposals for pilots in the implementation plans agencies are required to submit by March 9. If there are, the council will select the pilots from among those proposals. If not, Berry and Zients will work together to identify appropriate pilots.

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