Friction between union, managers at Social Security goes public

OPM chief Berry responds to complaint on composition of labor-management forum.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry responded Tuesday to a complaint about a lack of managers at labor-management meetings at the Social Security Administration.

Since President Obama extended an executive order encouraging labor-management forums at agencies, SSA employee Patricia Spade said, the group at her department consists only of “high-level executives and unions” who consider participation by managers a “deal breaker.”

Addressing Berry at the national conference of the Federal Managers Association -- which also has been calling for greater participation by management associations in the meetings -- Spade said many proposals that arise in the forum “need tweaking” by management and the American Federation of Government Employees is “calling the shots and dissing” the other unions, leaving her “embarrassed.”

SSA for more than two years has struggled for consensus on labor-management issues.

Besides AFGE, the largest union in the agency, SSA employees also are represented by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the National Treasury Employees Union, and the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Berry said, “one group shouldn’t dominate, and there should be a spirit of partnership that says, Let’s work together pre-decisionally, sitting down so that the manager corps can adapt.” He acknowledged “some jealousies and friction points on which managers should be at the table” but said managers are not ceding supervisory authority and the trouble spots are “not spread widely.”

“At OPM, managers are at the table with AFGE locals, which may be a model for other agencies,” Berry said. At SSA, “neither side is blameless. There is a tendency to let the past constrain the future,” he said. “But we don’t want to be like Northern Ireland and talk forever with the same dug-in on old positions and old thinking.”

Involvement of managers is essential, Berry said, adding there are not enough senior executives for the 2,000 labor-management forum sites around the country.

He told reporters afterward that he has worked on the problem with SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue as well as George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Berry called for “more trust, dialogue and respectful conversations.” But he told the audience member he would take Spade’s complaint under consideration.

Asked by Government Executive for a reaction, AFGE National President John Gage, said in an email, “It is unfortunate that erroneous rumors and uninformed opinions are being spread about the labor-management process between AFGE and SSA. It is ridiculous to say that AFGE is keeping managers from being on the [labor-management forums]. Management chooses its members, and the union chooses its members. AFGE does not have the ability to dictate to SSA who gets to be at the table.”