Agencies get green light to try expanding collective bargaining topics

At least six will participate in pilot programs allowing unions to negotiate over new issues such as technology and work methods.

The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations on Monday gave federal agencies the go-ahead to develop plans for implementing pilot programs expanding union bargaining.

During its monthly meeting, the council approved a working group report that asks participating agencies to submit within 45 days proposals for programs to test bargaining over issues not normally subject to negotiation in the federal sector. These so-called (b)(1) bargaining issues include the number and qualifications of employees assigned to work on projects, the technology involved and the work methods. Once the strategies have been approved, agencies will have 120 days to plan, organize and train pilot personnel. They are to start the test runs no later than November.

The working group, which had 21 representatives from labor and management, developed criteria for the pilot programs. Each will cover at least 500 bargaining unit employees or involve a "significant agency process." The working group divided (b)(1) issues into two groups. The first includes numbers, types and grades of employees or positions assigned to any organizational subdivision, work project or tour of duty; the second includes technology, and methods or means of performing work. The pilot programs must cover at least one issue from each category and one from both categories.

Several council members expressed concern these narrow programs would fail to offer a full picture of how expanding bargaining to include all (b)(1) issues would affect agencies and unions.

"I believe that pilots which bargain over one category here, one category there, are not additive to simulate the totality of the experience of bargaining over the full range of issues," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. "I'm concerned it could result in actually having no pilot which bargains over the full range of issues."

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry assured the council OPM's pilot will cover all the issues.

Scott Gould, who served on the working group and presented its report to the council, said the group was very focused on ensuring that everyone who will be negotiating (b)(1) subjects under the pilot programs -- managers, supervisors, union representatives and members of the labor-management forums -- receives joint training.

"This is a key element," Gould said. "We believe the pilots are more likely to be successful if it is the case that we train and train well and train together."

The working group suggested the Federal Labor Relations Authority help with training.

Discussion about the pilot programs was extensive, but Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management and chief performance officer at the Office of Management and Budget, urged members not to get bogged down in the details.

"We could fall into a little bit of a trap of the perfect being the enemy of the good here if we don't get going," Zients said.

The council will have agencies' pilot plans by September, and will meet at that time to discuss and approve them.