Giving Up the Good Fight
raditional labor-management relations amount to a zero-sum game: Employees gain only what the unions wrest from management's clenched hand. This adversarial approach has made federal unions indispensable.
In the federal government, unions' aggressive opposition to management and restrictions on management interference in union elections have paved the way for 80 percent of employees to vote for union representation. Unions represent only 9.4 percent of the private-sector workforce, as a result of manufacturing job cuts, service workers' inability to organize and aggressive employer efforts to defeat unions. In fact, the percentage of private-sector workers represented by unions has declined in the last 15 years. In contrast, representation in the federal workplace has steadily grown since President Kennedy initiated the labor-management program in 1962.
Although federal unions have grown and thrived in the adversarial arena, they need a new route to success in the 21st century. Antagonistic relationships are narrowly focused on fixing harm done in the past. Unions need a vision for the future: Create a workplace that boosts the job satisfaction of skilled workers.
Ill will between labor and management often develops during initial union organizing efforts. After all, organizers usually are responding to a call from a few dissatisfied employees. Unions often characterize such workplace complaints as the norm in order to expand their membership. They create a community that promises protection from management by becoming a counter-force to arbitrary behavior and unilateral decisions.
Since unions and management are competing for the allegiance of the same individuals, election campaigns are competitive and contentious. Managers often see these union efforts as a form of triangulation-an outside force breaking a personal bond of loyalty and mutual support within the agency. The rhetoric of a campaign often becomes personal, creating anger, distrust and a desire to get even. Managers fear losing decision-making control if a union campaign is successful.
The atmosphere of distrust continues during contract negotiations. Unions attempt to fulfill campaign promises, redress employee grievances and build cohesion among their members and potential members by fostering an "us vs. them" environment. Managers generally resist union contract proposals, which they believe will limit managerial flexibility and make achieving agency goals and objectives difficult.
In this sort of relationship, unions and management make no attempt to identify common interests or goals. They focus on correcting problems with little or no thought about increasing productivity and creating a workplace that satisfies employees and managers.
Bargaining for More
Traditional bargaining has generally focused on pay and benefits. More pay to buy a new car was regarded as compensation for a dull, dead-end job. But workers have changed. Workers not only want enough pay to enjoy their time off the job, they want satisfaction on the job. For example:
- Since 1993, IRS employee surveys have shown that employees are most satisfied when their knowledge, skills and abilities are effectively utilized. Employees want challenging work.
- Since 1994, the National Partnership Council's annual reports have said job satisfaction and productivity rise when employees are included in improving their work processes and procedures.
- In 1996, the Labor Department concluded after a year-long study of state and local governments that including employees in designing changes to boost productivity leads to continuous improvement and employee satisfaction.
Employee involvement in creating new work processes, determining organizational strategies and solving workplace problems is impossible in a hostile labor-management environment. The traditional union focus on grievance processing touches only a small number of employees. In any one year, perhaps 5 percent of the workforce will file or process a grievance. If the union is spending 100 percent of its time on 5 percent of the workforce it could become irrelevant to the 95 percent that has no involvement in the grievance process.
After the Battle
A union at war with an employer cannot address the needs of the 95 percent. And this market is key to union survival and success. Although federal sector unions represent 80 percent of the eligible workforce, only about 30 percent of those employees actually become members. Low membership rates diminish union leaders' credibility with management. Lack of members also makes funding union programs such as newsletters, meetings, social events and training difficult. And without funds, union leaders can become disconnected from members, nonmembers and the labor community.
Federal unions have a history of success with arbitration, unfair labor practice charges and lawsuits. Some unions win 70 percent of arbitrations, compared with the private-sector average of 30 percent. Unions have won millions of dollars in back pay for overtime violations, injunctions against management actions, and judicial decisions that found legislation and regulations unconstitutional. The unions' use of adversarial systems has enforced employee rights and provided redress to those injured.
Providing employee protection is not the only union role. A community born and sustained by struggle often dies when the battle is over. Unless unions create non-crisis bonding experiences, such as working on labor-management teams to address workplace issues, they will become irrelevant.
Unions need to expand their role to include improving employee satisfaction. Doing so will create shared experiences that strengthen the labor community. And a union that focuses on the 95 percent of workers who've never dealt with a formal grievance will increase membership rates and become a vital organization. At the Customs Service, for example, Operation Brass Ring increased drug interdiction efforts by 60 percent. The operation, created by a joint union-management committee, guaranteed employee ideas would be solicited, evaluated and implemented. Employees recognized that it was the union that gave them a voice.
Many managers recognize they don't have all the solutions to workplace problems nor all the knowledge, skills and abilities to increase agency productivity and public satisfaction. They recognize that adequately trained employees who are given the authority to exercise discretion are much more productive.
The interests of unions and managers overlap. Managers cannot engage employees if unions are constantly sowing seeds of distrust, publicizing "bad" management decisions, and blocking needed change in agency operations. Similarly, unions cannot improve employee satisfaction if managers insist on addressing only those matters that are negotiable. Both sides need collaborative problem-solving methods to achieve their goals.
It is difficult for union leaders, or any leaders, to change their role. A new vision should include not only the traditional role of protecting employees, but also:
- Improving employee satisfaction.
- Developing an organizational structure that fosters communication up, down and across the bargaining unit.
- Honing the political and leadership skills needed to lead significant change efforts.
The labor-management relationship cannot be transformed without changing the management role as well. To improve employee satisfaction, political appointees and senior executives must include union leaders and workers in strategic planning, implement changes in work processes and the workplace, and develop new technology.
Spending the time and energy to create and sustain a collaborative relationship is much more difficult than keeping the union at arm's length. But the potential to managers is huge. A less adversarial relationship means lower costs (fewer grievances, arbitrations, unfair labor practices and lawsuits) and greater savings (increased productivity and employee and customer satisfaction).
Robert M. Tobias is a distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University. He was president of the National Treasury Employees Union from 1983 to 1999.
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