Unions express concern over new draft of labor-management order

Federal employee unions and management groups disagree over the significance of the latest version of an executive order establishing labor-management partnerships.

The second draft of the order, distributed on Oct. 1 by the Office of Management and Budget to several agencies for comment, differs from a previous draft circulated in August in some important areas. The latest version makes the deputy director of management for OMB co-chair of a national partnership council along with the director of the Office of Personnel Management. The new draft also restores requirements, in effect during the Clinton administration, that agency leaders and union officials undergo training in cooperative bargaining and dispute resolution tactics, a mandate that some union leaders said promoted a false sense that labor and management had the same goals.

The new order also eliminates the requirement that agencies bargain over (b)(1), or so-called permissive subjects. Those types of issues, which range from the number and qualifications of employees assigned to projects to the technology and work methods involved, typically are not subject to negotiation in the federal sector. When that requirement was included in the first draft of the executive order, unions hailed it, saying the rule would bring about substantive collaboration between agencies and employee groups. The new draft eliminates that requirement, replacing it with a pilot program that would test bargaining over permissive subjects in a small group of agencies.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the Obama administration's proposal for a pilot program that would require several agencies or offices to bargain over permissive subjects was a non-starter.

"That's ridiculous. Pilot for what? To find out what?" he said. "I'm not really taking that seriously at all."

Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the prospect of an open-ended pilot was not encouraging. The executive order, he noted, says nothing about where the pilot would take place, how performance would be measured, its duration, or under what conditions bargaining over permissive subjects would be extended governmentwide.

"It's a disappointment," Biggs said. "Clearly the Obama administration gets the importance of labor-management relations. They understand the importance of making sure management enters into these discussions in a meaningful way. I think this is what the [requirements to bargain over permissive subjects] do."

But Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said that when she served on the national labor-management partnership council established by President Clinton's executive order, she thought that the council did not adequately document where such partnerships worked well, where they failed, or why.

"Let's do bargaining in a couple of pilot projects, and let's really pay attention to how it works or doesn't work, so if you can make the case that it works and extend it, you'll have some lessons learned that you can apply," she said. "Testing permissive bargaining and working out problems are more likely to lead to long-term success than a shotgun wedding."

Gage said an alternative to a pilot program could be a system that allowed agencies and unions to ask a higher authority, perhaps even the national partnership council that would be established by the executive order, to help them resolve conflicts over permissive issues.

"A lot of the union people might say, 'No, it's not the full deal, OK, it's not the full rights, but it's something,' " Gage said. "And it could be happening while we're still wrestling with the full rights."

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