A Partnership at Risk



f America's voters promote George W. Bush from governor of Texas to boss of the federal workforce, he'd better be prepared for a sharp change of climate on the labor-management front. As President, of course, he won't owe many debts to organized labor. (According to a campaign spokesman, no unions have yet endorsed his candidacy.) But should he sit in the Oval Office, he will be chief executive of the enterprise that has become the nation's last stronghold of collective bargaining.

While organized labor's clout in the private sector has declined over the past 15 years, it has enjoyed steady growth in the federal workplace. According to Robert M. Tobias, retired president of the National Treasury Employees Union, 80 percent of federal employees now work in sectors represented by unions, compared with only 9.4 percent of workers in private business.

This is a far cry from Bush's experience in Texas, where state right-to-work statutes have limited unionization. "Organizing is a tough job here," observes Greg Powell, business manager of a Texas local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is struggling to gain a foothold among state corrections workers. "Our governor proclaims to be inclusive, but organized labor certainly isn't part of his constituency as he sees it," Powell contends.

Powell's national union is stridently opposing Bush, in large part because of his efforts as governor to contract out activities currently conducted by state employees. An article in a recent issue of the union's magazine, Public Employee, carried the blaring headline, "Bushwhacked in Texas: Scheme to Privatize 13,000 Public-Sector Jobs Suggests Danger of a Bush Presidency."

Such high-octane scare rhetoric, of course, should come as no surprise in a closely contested election in which organized labor is backing Bush's Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore. But a Bush victory could spell trouble not just for public employee unions but for the new administration's hopes of effecting reforms to make government work more efficiently. "The interests of unions and managers overlap," notes Tobias, who now directs the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University. "Both sides need collaborative problem-solving methods to achieve their goals," Tobias wrote in a column in the April Government Executive.

But Tobias's vision of a cooperative atmosphere in which public employee unions refrain from "constantly sowing seeds of distrust, publicizing 'bad' management decisions, and blocking needed change in agency operations" is not likely to be achieved unless labor is given a voice in the decision-making process.

When Democrat Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he issued an executive order mandating that agencies enter into partnerships with their employees. Bobby L. Harnage Sr., national president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, said in an interview that the edict has produced "a few great examples of how things ought to work," but has led to "total failures" in many other cases.

The public sector unions are particularly disappointed that the downsizing of the government during the 1990s took far less of a toll among middle-management personnel, as they had expected, than among their members in lower-grade positions. Research by my fellow columnist, Brookings Institution scholar Paul C. Light, shows that employment in grades GS 11-15 fell by 7,000 from 1992-97, while employment in grades GS 1-10 plummeted by more than 170,000, and blue-collar jobs were cut by another 100,000.

Harnage said he gives Gore, the point man for the Clinton administration's reinvention of government initiatives, credit for his efforts to "work with us in a lot of areas, even if he has disappointed us in some." By contrast, he said the Bush campaign rebuffed his union's overtures to discuss federal employee issues. "Before we made an endorsement, we reached out and said we would like to talk about what we would like to see in the next President of the United States as our employer," Harnage declared.

Given that Bush has taken a number of campaign stands that are anathema to organized labor-including his opposition to the deduction of union dues from workers' paychecks and his support of the partial investment of Social Security taxes in private savings accounts-an accommodation with public employee unions was never in the cards.

But if Harnage is correct in his assessment that "all-out war has been declared," there may be negative consequences for both labor and management in a Bush administration. For the unions, as Tobias has argued, there is the danger of becoming "irrelevant" if they cannot find ways to work with management to improve the job satisfaction of skilled federal employees. And for Bush-the candidate who proclaims himself "a uniter, not a divider"-there is the risk of presiding over an increasingly contentious and disgruntled workforce that lacks the knowledge, skills and incentive to increase productivity and please the American public.

Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.