Analysis: Labor-Management Partnership 2.0

As agency and union officials enter a new age of cooperation they can draw lessons from the Clinton years.

In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order, similar to one President Clinton signed in 1993, establishing governmentwide labor-management forums and promoting partnerships between federal employee groups and agency officials.

Supporters of Clinton-era labor-management partnerships say they fostered greater cooperation between labor and management, recognized the importance of input from employees and their union representatives in agency decisions, created processes for involving front-line employees, and facilitated faster resolution of contract disputes and grievances.

Detractors argue the process sometimes excluded middle managers from important discussions, required senior managers to relinquish too much power, sank costs into attending partnership meetings that yielded meager results, required consensus-based bargaining tactics that understated critical differences, and failed to hold managers accountable for implementing partnerships.

Labor-management partnerships fared much better at some agencies than others. The most important contributor to success was support from agency chief executives and union presidents. Top executives must be prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure agency chief human capital officers and labor relations specialists understand that partnership is a legitimate approach to labor-management relations. Union chiefs must foster similar acceptance among their contract negotiations staff.

The peaks and pitfalls of establishing partnerships under Clinton's executive order yielded helpful guideposts for agency executives and union officials.

Agree on the Mission

Labor and management officials must develop a shared understanding of what their partnership is trying to accomplish. For example, they could define partnership broadly as using stakeholder involvement and cooperative problem-solving to influence the agency's direction and decisions that affect employees' work environment. Each side should integrate their priorities, such as accountability, which usually ranks high for management, and empowerment, typically a union bargaining imperative.

Get It in Writing

Draft a formal partnership agreement. In multilayered agencies, such agreements describe in detail how labor-management forums and processes will work at various levels in each division or function, and how they will foster communication and coordination across operating units. Officials should regard the agreement as a living document subject to periodic review and modification at least annually to make improvements and address problems.

Limit Consultants

Agency employees often team up with outside consultants to provide their labor-management forums with startup guidance and training. But officials should rely on them only to develop in-house facilitators who can support ongoing partnership activities without external assistance.

Provide Multiple Forums

Productive partnerships require regular, ongoing and sometimes intense interactions in scheduled and structured labor-management forums. They also create platforms for episodic, impromptu and informal exchanges of information and practices, including face-to-face meetings, virtual networks or task teams.

Develop a Process for Input

Cultivate a common understanding of the input process leading up to management decisions -- what the process entails, why it is in everyone's respective interests, what are the expectations, and what actions will occur after the process has concluded. Agencies should provide managers, employees, union officials and other stakeholders with substantive information and involvement in workplace matters before establishing policies or taking actions that affect the work environment. Management officials must provide information honestly, openly and early enough to solicit direct, informed and credible input from stakeholders.

Break the Consensus Barrier

Consensus is neither necessary nor attainable on every labor-management issue. Adopt a strive-for-consensus approach. Forum participants should make good-faith efforts to reach agreements each side can live with and publicly support. But use other methods -- voting or delegating to the forum chair -- when consensus is jointly perceived to be unnecessary or unattainable.

Develop Partnering Skills

Every participant in labor-management forums should receive training in interest-based problem-solving, strive-for-consensus decision-making and collaborative bargaining. Agencies should foster partnering skills through professional development programs and training for union stewards and agency managers. Interpersonal communication and collaboration create positive agency-union partnerships and constructive relationships with stakeholders -- all of which are vital to agency performance.

Hinda Sterling and Herb Selesnick are senior partners at the consulting firm Sterling & Selesnick Inc., which was involved in implementing Clinton administration labor-management partnerships.