Obama appoints new members to labor-management panel

Government and union leaders hope federal labor relations board can reduce its case backlog.

Six months after he fired their predecessors, President Obama has appointed new members to the panel responsible for resolving bargaining disputes between federal employee unions and agencies.

Those appointments to the Federal Service Impasses Panel complete the new team at the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which includes the panel. Agency and union officials said they hope the agency will be able to reduce its case backlog and help mediate more disputes.

Obama dismissed President Bush's appointees to the Federal Service Impasses Panel on March 6. Panel members are not subject to Senate confirmation, and though they are appointed for five-year terms, they can be fired by the president. When he took office in 2001, Bush fired President Clinton's appointees to the panel. Since Obama fired Bush's appointees, the panel has been able to accept new cases, but not to resolve them.

Six of Obama's seven choices for the impasses panel served in federal labor relations organizations earlier in their careers, some of them working together during the Clinton administration. The new chairwoman, Mary Jacksteit, a mediation expert, spent seven years on the panel during the 1990s, serving alongside fellow Clinton nominees Edward Hartfield and Marvin Johnson. Hartfield was also a commissioner of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Nominees Don Wasserman was a member and then chairman of FLRA between 1995 and 2001, and Barbara Franklin was chief counsel at the agency. Thomas Angelo worked as a regional attorney for FLRA between 1981 and 1983.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said the nominees' backgrounds in labor law indicated they would resolve disputes fairly, rather than siding predictably with labor or management, providing incentives for parties to negotiate in good faith and to try to reach agreements rather than declaring an impasse.

"I just think the biggest win-win for everybody is when the people who have to live under the agreement come up with the terms of the agreement," Kelley said. "With the best of intentions, there will be disagreement, and that's why it's important to have credible appointees on the authority and the panel."

The Federal Labor Relations Authority has been in limbo since last year. The agency's general counsel resigned in March 2008, leaving it unable to issue unfair labor practices complaints. In July 2008, Dale Cabaniss resigned as its chairman, leaving the authority with Carol Waller Pope, now chairwoman, as its sole member, until Thomas Beck was appointed and confirmed in October 2008. During that time, the authority was unable to issue decisions because it did not have a quorum, creating a backlog of cases.

Julia Clark was confirmed by the Senate to be the authority's new general counsel last month, at the same time that Ernest DuBester was confirmed as FLRA's third member. John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, praised those nominations, and Obama's choice of Pope to lead FLRA, as proof the new administration is committed to collective bargaining rights for federal workers.

Pope said the agency has made substantial progress in reducing the number of pending cases, from 400 at the beginning of fiscal 2009 to 315. In August, the authority issued 32 decisions based on the merits of the cases at hand, more than any single month since September 2003. Pope says she hopes that in addition to reducing the backlog, FLRA will be able to provide updated training to meet new labor relations' needs, which can help reduce the number of grievances and unfair labor practices filed.

"I'm in the business of telling people we're back in business," she said.