‘I want to work myself out of a job’: How two FLRA officials are responsible for resolving hundreds of labor-management disputes
The Federal Labor Relations Authority’s Collaboration and Alternative Dispute Resolution Office makes a big impact, despite a tiny organizational chart.
Since its revival in 2021, an office within the Federal Labor Relations Authority has earned high marks both within the agency and across the federal government’s labor relations community for its ability to resolve disputes outside of litigation, despite having a head count of only two attorneys.
“They have an astounding resolution rate of almost 100%,” FLRA Chairwoman Susan Tsui Grundmann said of the Collaboration and Alternative Dispute Resolution Office. “They attended a labor-management conference recently, and they were flooded with requests for help—almost 100 requests for help. And this is just two attorneys who are still doing other work [at the agency]. What they do goes past the dispute and the conflict, and is based on getting the parties to understand their relationship itself.”
CADRO Director Michael Wolf, who also serves at the FLRA as an unfair labor practice settlement official within the Office of Administrative Law Judges, has run the small office since 2010, except for the period during the Trump administration when it was disbanded. The mission of CADRO is simple: help unions and agencies to resolve all manner of disputes before reaching the adjudicative phase of litigation, be that before an arbitrator, administrative law judge or the agency's three-member authority.
“We primarily mediate negotiability petitions and arbitration exceptions on one side of our operations, and on the other side we conduct settlement conferences [after an unfair labor practice complaint has been issued],” Wolf told Government Executive. “We also conduct training on labor-management relationship improvement and relationship repair, when parties are at the end of their own ability to figure out how to fix something that might be severely broken.”
In the first 18 months since CADRO was reestablished, Wolf said he and his lone colleague, Merritt Weinstein, resolved 35 negotiability cases, including 411 of 413 distinct “language disputes” within those cases. And during fiscal 2023, the duo resolved 32 more negotiability cases, including 329 out of 330 individual language disputes.
And in unfair labor practice cases, which are automatically forwarded to CADRO when the FLRA general counsel issues complaints, the office was quickly inundated with nearly 400 cases shortly after Charlotte Dye was designated acting general counsel in 2021. Prior to her designation, the Senate-confirmed position sat vacant for nearly the entirety of the Trump administration, causing a lengthy backlog.
“As far as I know, less than 10 of those ULP cases have gone to a hearing [before an administrative law judge],” Wolf said. “Every other one that went through the settlement program got settled.”
Wolf insists that his and Weinstein’s techniques, which Wolf said he has been honing as a professional mediator since 1972, aren’t “magic.” Rather, the key is to get the parties to focus less on winning a particular legal battle and more on how both parties can work together to address a common problem underlying the legal conflict.
“What we do is not merely settle cases, but rather we help them solve problems,” he said. “For them, these problems are pragmatic—not just numbers or a legal question, but some kind of problem arose that gave rise to the legal question. We have the privilege of helping them really get through the legal question and get to the problem and help them address those underlying issues.”
Wolf describes CADRO’s technique as the “interest-based problem solving” model, wherein the mediators elicit brainstorming activities from the parties about what their greatest interests are within the context of labor-management relations and then foster discussions on how the parties can collaboratively work to meet the interests of both sides.
“One of the most important things we do is we help parties redefine what the meaning of ‘success’ is to them,” he said. “When they come to an adjudicatory entity like the FLRA, they often think of success as winning the case, which of course means making the other party lose the case. They’re in this win-lose paradigm that those who aren’t experienced in litigation don’t realize can often end up as a lose-lose situation, where the only way to know if you’ve won is if the other party lost more than you did. So one thing we help them do is redefine what it means to win, wherein winning isn’t defined by the outcome of a legal construct, but instead by satisfying as many of their legitimate interests as possible.”
Wolf said that during the Obama administration, the FLRA hired a consultant to advise on how the agency can improve on its mission delivery. That consultant recommended that CADRO should not have two employees, but instead somewhere in the range of six or seven full-time equivalent positions. He estimated that every additional CADRO employee could have the same performance impact of five to 10 FLRA employees in jobs supporting the agency’s adjudicatory functions—though he hastened to clarify he was not arguing for funding CADRO at the expense of the rest of his agency.
“It could make a huge financial difference and difference in terms of outcomes,” he said. “We would get cases settled quicker, and we also help parties solve problems in addition to settling cases, which is something you don’t achieve through litigation.”
But Wolf said his ultimate goal is to teach agencies and unions how to work collaboratively without any outside help.
“We teach them to redefine what it means to win so that they are able to better collaborate and recognize in the future that if they utilize some of the techniques we have been utilizing in mediation, they can do this too and continue to find new ways to improve mission performance and quality of work life, and not need people like Michael and Merritt, which is a goal of mine.”
“I want to work myself out of a job,” he said with a laugh.