Labor Relations Require Nurturing

M

anaging a labor-management relationship requires the same preparation, planning, goal setting, monitoring and accountability as any other agency operation. Top-level political appointees and senior executives must actively nurture the relationship in order to achieve the employee participation needed to accomplish agency objectives. Passive management yields passive results at best and, at worst, an agency at war with its employees.

Political appointees and senior executives fail to actively manage labor management relationships for many reasons. They may be focused on formulating agency policy rather than implementing it, responding to Congress, or managing external agency stakeholders. Although the competing demands on executives' time are many, the price of inattention is almost always a lost opportunity to accomplish agency objectives.

A labor-management relationship can be filled with distrust or it can serve as the vehicle for engaging employees in accomplishing agency goals while generating satisfaction in the workplace. Because 80 percent of eligible federal employees have voted to be represented by unions, the labor-management relationship is synonymous with the employee-management relationship.

While only 35 percent of those employees are members, unions are obligated to speak for all the employees they represent. And management is obligated to speak to employees through the union. Some political appointees and senior executives ignore this simple truth. They believe they can delegate a hostile union-management relationship to chaos controllers in the agency personnel division while maintaining "good" relations with employees.

The ability of union leaders to enhance or impede agency goals should not be ignored. Some of them enjoy more popular support than others, and some workplaces have more union members than others. But union leaders have the legal right to insist that every agency initiative be negotiated and can block initiatives indefinitely. When bypassed, union leaders also can generate a lack of trust in agency officials.

If their goal is to maximize employee productivity, executives must foster the labor-management relationship with the same level of energy, interest and time they devote to the appropriations process. This is especially true in the federal sector, given its history of fiercely adversarial labor relations. An expert interviewed by the General Accounting Office in a 1991 report commented, "Never have so many people and agencies spent so much time, blood, sweat and tears on so little." The failure to produce tangible results despite significant effort has fueled disappointment, cynicism and the perpetuation of adversarial labor-management relations.

Personnel officials cannot create a common vision in an organized workplace. And relying solely on the labor-management statute to fix a dysfunctional relationship cannot work. Executives must lead the effort to repair relations with unions.

The federal labor relations statute focuses on the mechanics of that relationship, such as:

  • The agency must bargain with the union and create a collective bargaining agreement.
  • The union must be notified in advance of any contemplated changes in working conditions, and the changes may not be implemented until bargaining is completed.
  • Disputes over employee discipline or the application of the collective bargaining agreement must go to binding arbitration.

    But a labor-management relationship limited to creating employee rights and safety, is not a fully evolved relationship between employees, their elected representatives, and managers.

More With Less

Agency goals are achieved by implementing policy, which is becoming ever more difficult as Congress expands agency missions, the public and press become more vocal and demanding, and funds for discretionary spending decrease. The heart of effective management is creating more efficient work processes, giving more discretion to more accountable managers, and energizing employees.

Traditionally, Congress has exercised limited review of agency management. But a renewed interest in how agencies are managed has released a stream of legislation:

  • The 1991 Chief Financial Officers Act ordered agencies to adopt modern accounting standards and practices that could be independently audited.
  • The 1993 Federal Financial Management Improvement Act directed agencies to use the financial information to improve management practices.
  • The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) ordered agencies to articulate measurable goals and to submit them with annual budget requests.
  • The 1994 Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the 1996 Federal Acquisition Reform Act sought to improve federal procurement by giving agency heads more responsibility for saving money by removing bureaucratic barriers to efficient technology purchases.
  • The 1996 Information Technology Management Reform Act, known as the Clinger-Cohen Act, gives agency heads more discretion while mandating the creation of new processes to evaluate agency technology needs.

The Clinton administration has tried to stimulate more effective management by decentralizing personnel policies and giving managers more discretion and responsibility. Before these initiatives, critics complained that agency personnel authority was lodged in the Office of Personnel Management and disassociated from agency missions. With the virtual elimination of the Federal Personnel Manual, OPM has delegated personnel authority to agency heads. In addition, the Office of Management and Budget no longer imposes staffing ceilings. Although OMB continues to fight with agencies over appropriate funding, it gives agency heads more discretion to allocate resources as needed.

Changing Course

President Clinton recognizes that solutions to workplace problems rest with managers overseeing the work and employees doing the work. The President believes that for management discretion to be effective, all employees must be involved and the labor-management relationship must change from adversarial to collaborative. "The involvement of federal government employees and their union representatives is essential to achieving the National Performance Review's government reform objectives," Clinton said in an October executive order. "Only by changing the nature of federal labor management relations so that managers, employees and employees' elected union representatives serve as partners will it be possible to design and implement the comprehensive changes necessary to reform government."

Creating a collaborative labor-management relationship focused on improved agency operations and employee and public satisfaction requires active management, but it won't be easy. Political appointees change rapidly, making it difficult to create and institutionalize a labor-management relationship. New political appointees are often interested in changing the focus and direction of the agency, which tends to disrupt the momentum created by prior appointees.

Hierarchical management structures leave little authority for decision-making below the top and a great reluctance by those at the top to create a seat at the table for an employee representative. Coming up with a new labor relationship, in which all parties have a stake, is challenging.

Union leaders also must overcome obstacles to improved relations with management. It is difficult to change from focusing on short-term tangible actions, such as grievances and unfair labor practice complaints, to long-term systematic improvements, even though they would make the work of employees more productive and enjoyable.

The history of union-management relationships makes it difficult for union leaders to trust management representatives to check their guns at the door. Unions fear being perceived as "in bed with management." Extended meetings with managers, the lack of quick results and toning down of rhetoric all can lead a union leader's constituents to believe the worst.

Both expect that a collaborative labor-management relationship should result in outcomes to their liking. For example, managers believe that if they share information, union leaders should understand and accept their decisions. And union leaders believe that if managers truly listen, they will understand and agree--thereby eliminating the need for grievances.

In spite of the history and the obstacles, collaborative relationships have had a positive impact on the bottom line at many agencies. Reducing the number of grievances, unfair labor practice charges and days spent in traditional bargaining saves money. So does increased productivity.

The National Partnership Council has documented extensive savings in its annual reports. The most detailed analysis to date was conducted by Booz-Allen and Hamilton for the Customs Service to audit its collaborative effort with the National Treasury Employees Union. Booz-Allen found that for every dollar Customs invested in its partnership effort, it received a return of $1.25. A private-sector company couldn't turn down a 25 percent return on investment nor should any agency.

Robert M. Tobias, distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University, was president of the National Treasury Employees Union from 1983 to 1999.

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